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Non sibi sed omnibus
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AS Anna looked through the double windows of her bedroom at the hotel, she became suddenly conscious of the passage of time. Although the port was not yet sealed, winter had gripped the small northern town almost overnight. The sky was purple-dark with snow-clouds, and the old stunted trees opposite were blown forward by the wind until they rapped the wall with knobby knuckles.
"Time I went back to England," she told herself. "There's nothing to stop for now."
Time. It was curious how this element was to dominate the situation. Anna often had the impression of being imprisoned within a maze, five minutes before closing-time. Its windings were neither numerous nor complicated; but, if she lost her head and took a wrong turning in her haste, she might reach the outlet—only to find the door locked.
The weather that morning corresponded with her own bitter mood. She was feeling bleakly disillusioned as the aftermath of an unpleasant scene with Otto yesterday, when she had broken with him finally, on the score of his disloyalty.
While she had no real ground for complaint because his so-called secretary—Olga—occupied a position in his scheme which she herself had declined to fill—she was appalled by the wholesale scale of his operations in the love-market, and also by his admission that she had helped to finance his romance.
In fact, the only redeeming feature of a bad business was her ability to swear in Russian.
Notwithstanding her fluency, the final score was his, because she could not assail the logic of his defence.
"You know that here we believe in collectivisation," he reminded her. "Since you are a monopolist, what are you doing in Russia?"
The reason was that she was a victim of glamour. Ever since she had met Otto at a debating society in the east end of London, she had been ensnared by his personality. He had not only the golden beard of a Viking and dark-blue eyes which were chill as polar seas, but he was essentially a spell-binder.
Whenever he talked, shoals of bright words bubbled up responsively in her own brain. He became her star and she followed, or rather, accompanied him to Russia, where she helped to finance his new venture—a non-political paper, confined to art, literature and science.
As long as the dream lasted, her surroundings were misted with illusion. It is doubtful whether she ever saw the dim grey northern town as it was in reality. To her, there was glamour in the tall cramped houses and the stone steps leading down to the olive water of the port; glamour in the green-grape twilight; glamour in the blaze of starlight.
Above all, there was glamour in the communal life in Otto's newspaper-office, where violent young men and women gathered around the stove, to talk of everything—from the stratosphere above to the drains which were under the earth.
And now the dream was ended—slain by Olga and the first frost.
As she looked around her, Anna was aware, for the first time, of the dingy purple-pink wallpaper—the colour of pickled cabbage—and the shabby painted furniture of her bedroom.
"Mother would think this pretty grim," she thought.
She was gazing pensively at the fluff under her bed, when the door opened and the middle-aged chambermaid entered, carrying a mop and pail.
She had an impoverished white skin which was dry as rice-paper, and a coronet of black hair.
Crossing to the window, she stood beside Anna and pointed to certain dark blotches on the opposite wall.
"You see those marks," she said. "They put the Guards there and shot them down."
Anna suppressed a shudder as she made a consciously enlightened comment.
"A bad means to a good end, comrade. But it was inevitable to progress."
"Inevitable," agreed the chambermaid. "If the worms are allowed to nibble the cabbage, loyal citizens would have no bortsch...In the prisons they serve grey-eyes soup. And when the tide is high, the water trickles through the gratings of the cells."
In spite of her academic agreement that the penalties of disloyalty should be stringent, Anna changed the subject.
"Shall we play chess to-night?" she asked. "It will be my last chance to try to beat you. I'm going back to England to-morrow."
"Why?" asked the chambermaid.
"Why not? After all, I'm English."
"You? Anna Stephanovitch? Then why do you speak Russian so well?"
As the woman stared at her with sceptical eyes, Anna began to explain.
"Because, when I was a baby, my mother married a Russian. He was a naturalised British subject, and I've always been called by his name. He took the place of my own father who was killed in the War, before I was born. After he died, my mother married again. She's good at it. And now she's living in the Argentine...But I loved my stepfather and when I came to Russia, it was like coming home."
The chambermaid nodded approval, for she appreciated the double obituary notice in the autobiography.
"So you have lost two fathers. And now you have lost your lover," she remarked. "It is said that Otto is spending money on the woman Olga, who works in the newspaper office. He has bought her a fine new fur coat."
Anna's anger flared up again as she listened, for she guessed that, indirectly, she was the real donor of the coat.
"Otto is not my lover," she said hotly. "And I don't need presents."
"Then you are rich like all the English? At home, do you have white bread, and sugar instead of a toffee apple dip?"
"Yes," replied Anna bitterly. "At my home, there was always too much of everything, while people were starving."
Her eyes were sombre as she gazed down at the line of wind-tormented trees. In spite of his flash of spirit in response to her every mood, her stepfather had been a gross-looking, bearded man, who was too fond of creature comforts.
"My stepfather was very stout," she told the chambermaid. "But inside, he was thin. His mind was like a pure flame. He ate too much and he died, at dinner, from a stroke. He choked and was dead in one minute."
"His food burst him," declared the chambermaid.
She was enchanted with the anecdote, but Anna's face was tragic as she thought of the Hampstead mansion—that over-stuffed nest of domestic luxury—and the extravagant meals.
At the time she was too young to understand that her mother's lavish housekeeping was supplementary to her fundamental determination—to keep a good husband happy to the day of his death.
Filled with a sense of angry frustration at the social inequality, the girl divided society into a chronically overfed middle-class and an eternally hungry proletariat—while she used the adjective "bourgeois" to cover every insult the most fertile imagination could invent.
Her own protest took the form of rebellion, when she ran away from school and got a job in a draper's shop.
She soon came back, but her mutiny persisted. After her stepfather's death, her pent-up energy found relief in a series of social experiments.
"Anna's broken out again," her mother would confide to the expensive scented ladies who accompanied her to the cinema—which met every intellectual need. "I'm told she's selling flowers in High Holborn. So anti-social to the other poor flower-girls, with so much competition in everything...But it amuses her, and she's not brought home any 'little things' yet."
Selling flowers in the street...Sleeping under an archway...The shop...A pickle factory...As the pictures flitted across Anna's mind, the chambermaid caught her arm.
"Look who's here," she said.
With a strange thrill of excitement, Anna gazed down at a woman who was striding across the road. In a brutal and debased manner she was beautiful, with blonde colouring and vivid blue eyes. Her bobbed flaxen hair was cut in a straight fringe across her forehead and her loose lips were scarlet. She wore breeches, a sheepskin coat, and men's boots, which made her feet appear enormous.
Anna was struck by the fact that the few pedestrians shrank away from her, as though they wished to escape her notice.
"That is Hirsch," said the chambermaid. "She is the People's Prosecutor."
"I've not seen her before," said Anna. "I wonder what she has come for."
"Business." The chambermaid lowered her voice as she added, "Business which is transacted in cellars."
"Surely. She has shot hundreds down in the cellars. It is a patriotic duty and the pay is handsome. But they say that so much killing has turned her crazy."
Anna could not understand her sudden spurt of terror.
"I'm a British subject," she reminded herself. "My passport is in order. I have money. And I'm going back to England to-morrow."
At that moment, she was so close to the outlet of the maze, that one step would take her through the door.
THE town looked different when Anna left the hotel, in order to buy her ticket for a soft place in the train. The change was actual and not the effect of lost illusions. During the night, the wind had stripped the trees and the streets were carpeted with layers of leaves.
They covered every surface so thickly that they blotted out inequalities and outlines. Unable to see where the pavement ended, Anna side-stepped off the kerb, caught her heel in a crack, and slipped to her knees in the gutter.
This time, she swore in English.
"Thank goodness, I'll soon be walking on a decent pavement again," she told herself as she scrambled to her feet.
She did not know it, but the moment was epic...When she ran away from school, to earn her living in a shop, her stepfather had refused to interfere.
"No," he said to his wife's hysterical pleading. "I will not send detectives after her as if she were criminal. The little one has intelligence and will come to no harm. Let her stand on her own feet for a while. Presently she will return."
But Anna had never come back...It is true that a subdued schoolgirl of the same name and appearance was soon in residence again at the Hampstead mansion; but she—herself—was still wandering in the rebel territory of her mind.
It was not until she paid tribute to the good offices of the L.C.C. that she took her first step back to the home which was no longer there.
Just then, London seemed so near that she could almost see the buses inside Victoria Station yard and the scarlet electric signs quivering through a dun transparency. These lights stood for safety even if they conjured up no thrill.
Her feelings were mixed as she scuffled through the fallen leaves. Common sense made her realise the futility of regret, which was partly due to season.
She could not recall the summer, when the salt mist veiled the old buildings of the port to the dim beauty of faded tapestry, and the trees in the avenue told stories in husky whispers. Impossible, too, to recapture the fraternity spirit of those endless, unlicensed talks around the stove in Otto's office, when the only convention was always to use the unexpurgated word.
Of all these wild men and girls, there were only three persons with whom she came into more than casual contact. These were Otto, Olga and Conrad Stern.
Now, only Conrad remained.
"I must say 'Good-bye' to him," she thought regretfully. "Pity. Sheer waste of an interesting man."
Yet although he was one of those who counted, she did not want to stay in this strange town, which was all that remained of the dark enchanted city of her dream. The tall thin houses seemed to have shrunk as though they were frost-bitten to their foundations, while their fronts were grey as clinkered ash. Involuntarily she thought of their cellars, as the People's Prosecutor, in her blonde brutality, tramped across her mind.
This was a town where people disappeared. To-day you spoke to a man and arranged to meet him on the morrow. If he did not keep his appointment, you asked no questions. And you might not see him again.
In her eagerness to identify herself with the Komsomol, or communal youth of the country, Anna shared their enthusiasm for an experiment so stupendous, that it stunned—even while it stirred—her imagination. Yet while she agreed that its enemies must be destroyed, she shrank from a method of espionage where the individual was at the mercy of his fellow.
As a rule, she hurried by the prison, where the tidal river, which swept one side, was now in flood. It rushed past the wall in a swift brown wave which appeared almost level with the lowest line of windows.
Drawn by a morbid fascination, she lingered for a minute. The wind had piled up an enormous drift of leaves against an iron door. It imparted an air of desuetude, as though people had gone inside, but had never pushed the portal outwards again.
She walked on quickly before she could think too vividly of the fate of any prisoners inside. Cells weeping with river water. The grey eyes of fish floating in soup. A last appointment to meet a lady—a blonde with a taste for cellars.
When she reached the square, on her way to the post office—it had an air of desertion. There were no market-stalls to dwarf its size to-day. The giant equestrian statue in the middle seemed magnified to a symbol of civic authority. As she passed beneath the pedestal, his rearing horse appeared on the point of crashing down upon her skull.
Her intention was, as usual, first to collect any mail, and then to go to the café. That morning, the woman official did not disappoint her, for she handed her a letter from a pigeon-hole.
She recognised the handwriting on the envelope, and stuffed it into her bag, unopened. Her community spirit did not extend to former school friends—and Gloria James could wait.
When she was inside the double doors of the café, she stood looking for Conrad Stern. The room was overheated by an enormous stove, but, apart from its atmosphere, it was a pleasant refuge from the grey outside world. A brass samovar bubbled cheerfully and each indiarubber plant wore its jacket of coloured, plaited paper. Above all rose the thrum of talk, like the whir of a myriad spinning-tops.
Conrad Stern was seated at a small table—by a window. Closely-shorn, clean-shaven and monocled, his appearance was in strong contrast with most of the shaggy company, although he would have been a striking personality in other circumstances. There was distinction in his tall thin figure and the moulding of his face which always made Anna curious to unveil the mystery of his origin.
When she drew nearer, he rose to meet her.
"I rather hoped you might come here," he said.
"I wanted to meet you too," Anna told him. "I'm going back to England."
"Then—" he hesitated before he added, "then you know about Otto?"
"Yes. I've heard also that Olga has a new fur."
Humiliated by the knowledge that their quarrel was already in circulation, Anna tried to speak lightly.
"I'm not quite blind," she said. "Of course, just at first I thought he was rather splendid. But lately I've realised how cheap he really is. In fact, we had a row."
She remembered the essential adjective and added hastily, "we had a bloody row."
Conrad Stern smiled slightly as he crossed to the buffet to get tea for her. When he returned with the cup of weak, scalding fluid, he asked an abrupt question.
"How are you off for money?"
"I've enough for my journey," she told him.
"Good." His voice held relief. "Passport in order?"
"Yes. The original visa expired, but Otto got it renewed, the other day. Whenever they wanted to see my papers at the hotel, he wangled things for me. A man can always slip his mistress through when he can't take his wife."
Anna laughed as she spoke, for she had been rather flattered by the general assumption of a freedom of which she had never availed herself. It made her feel definitely Russian. Aware, however, of Conrad's silence, she denied the rumour, for the first time.
"Of course, I was never that," she said.
The frost of his face relaxed as he smote the table with his palm.
"Why didn't you tell me that before?" he asked. "As long as you were Otto's friend, you were not in my landscape. We've wasted too much time. We might have been—comrades."
Although his smile revealed the lines in his thin face, she was thrilled by its fascination. Some of the vanished glamour of the summer seemed to quiver again in the smoky air. Her mother would have seen the shape of "little things" to come in the unwashed company, but she was conscious only of warm intimacy and understanding.
"And now you know?" she asked.
"Now it is too late. You are going back to England and I am leaving this town at once. I have the prospect of a job elsewhere. I only waited to see you, in case you wanted any help about your journey."
"Because we are compatriots. You come from Hampstead and I was born and bred in Hammersmith. It is true that I have wandered far from the Broadway. But Hammersmith may have my bones."
Anna did not believe him, although she made another effort to break his reserve.
"What exactly are you?"
"When all other alibis fail, one can always call oneself a journalist," he told her, with the flicker of a smile.
She gave up the attempt to pump him.
"How did you guess I would go back to England?" she asked.
"It seemed indicated." He glanced at his wrist-watch and added, "Time I left. And time you went to the station to get your ticket."
Their moment had passed and the air was heavy with parting. Conrad held her hand tightly as he asked her a directly personal question.
"Were you in love with Otto?"
"No," she admitted. "It was only infatuation."
"I thought so. Is there a young man in England?"
"There may be."
"Then marry him at once and raise a family. A boy, a girl, or a baby Austin, according to taste. And forget Russia...Good-bye."
The place seemed very lonely after he had gone, yet Anna got fresh tea, merely as an excuse to linger. She knew that she should not delay in buying her railway ticket. Time was passing, and, at this crisis, time was precious.
The truth was that she lacked the moral courage to go to the office where she had deposited most of her money. In spite of her philosophy she shrank from the ordeal of seeing Otto and Olga together. And—definitely—she did not want to see the new fur.
The clock ticked on, but still she sat and smoked. Presently she drew out Gloria James's letter and read it. It told her that her former schoolfellow was on her way back from a visit to the East, with her husband and her baby.
"It's a business trip," she wrote, "and we'll be stopping off for a day or so at your burg. Wait for us, and we can all travel back to England together."
Anna shuddered at the prospect of staying a moment longer than was necessary in a dreary town which was drained of interest.
"Declined—without thanks," she murmured.
As she crossed over to the buffet to pay her score, she realised that she would be spared the pang of seeing the lovers together, for Olga was in the café, alone. She was a fair Jewess, with plaits of golden hair and a famished intellectual face, which was subtly cheapened by the meretricious fur coat she wore.
When Anna crossed to her table, she put down her glass of vodka and spoke aggressively.
"If you've come to talk of Otto, I won't talk of him to you."
Surprised by her rival's vehemence, Anna spoke with stressed calm.
"I don't want to discuss him. I've merely come to say 'Good-bye.' But why aren't you at the office?"
Olga stared at her while her lips began to quiver.
"Haven't you heard?" she asked incredulously.
A gloomy triumph smouldered in Olga's eyes as she surrendered herself to the drama of her announcement.
"The office was raided, last night, by the Ogpu. They took away the papers and all the money in the safe. And they carried my Otto away in the Black Raven."
As she listened, Anna's head began to spin.
"All the money," she repeated blankly.
AS Anna stared blankly before her, suddenly she realised the real reason for Conrad Stern's intervention. His question about Otto held no reference to the quarrel. He merely assumed that she had heard of the raid, and therefore, could have no wish to stay longer in Russia.
Her thoughts were recalled by the sight of Olga's stricken face. It brought home the truth that this was the Jewess's tragedy. Although she was both shocked and sorry personally, to hear of Otto's arrest, he had hurt her so much that she felt no sense of real loss.
"It must be some terrible mistake," she cried. "Why should they arrest him?"
Olga shook away her hand and laughed.
"For anti-Soviet propaganda," she said defiantly.
Anna felt as though Olga had struck her between her eyes.
"But the paper was non-political," she protested feebly.
"The paper was only a blind. He had you all fooled. Both sides were paying him—the Fascists and his rich intellectual friends."
"Don't talk like that. We must do him the justice to believe that he acted from conviction."
"Why must we?" Olga's thin red lips writhed with scorn, as she explained. "It's quite simple. He wanted money—that is all. The best posts in a government are always already filled. A young and ambitious man must be an 'Anti,' because a revolution will give him his chance to rise."
"Still I can't see why he should want money so desperately as all that. He had enough."
"Not enough for me. You understand, one must experience everything. But I had never known luxury...It was good while it lasted, especially when one knows the end...Now the future holds more experience. One can only wait."
The fatalistic attitude did not appeal to Anna, in spite of the jar to her feelings. Otto had betrayed his country—and the magnitude of this offence dwarfed his disloyalty to herself. All the same, it seemed scarcely civilised to abandon him to his fate.
At the memory of a muddy swell of water sweeping past the prison wall, she spoke urgently.
"Olga, we must do something at once. We must go to the prison and arrange bail for him."
The mention of the British procedure made Olga shake her head with a gloomy triumph in defeatism.
"It is all utterly hopeless," she told Anna. "We have all been to the prison—even the secret Stern. But they will tell us nothing of Otto. They say they do not know. All lies—but we shall never know. This is the end."
She lit another cigarette and stared at Anna with sombre eyes.
"Are you not unhappy now that you quarrelled with him yesterday?" she demanded. "You hurt him so deeply. Is it not misery to remind yourself that you would be spared this regret if only you had waited for one short day longer?"
Anna did her best to hide her real feeling, for the reproach had made her realise her luck.
Had she waited that extra day, her private money would now be confiscated with the rest of the funds.
Since her bedroom at the hotel was too communal for the safe-keeping of valuables, Otto had acted as her banker and kept her surplus funds at the office. During yesterday's quarrel, however, he marked his displeasure by opening the safe and taking out an envelope.
"Since you do not trust me," he said, "I refuse to hold this for you. Oblige me by counting it now, in my presence. You will find I have borrowed a little, from time to time—but I have always left an I.O.U."
Instead of being ashamed by his gesture and assuring him of her confidence in him, Anna was unfeignedly glad to take possession. What was worse, she exhibited a business spirit, which—besides being bourgeois—led to the revelation of Olga's fur coat.
At the end of the stocktaking interlude, they parted in mutual anger. Otto stamped out of the office, while Anna lingered, in order to place her money in a temporary hiding-place. On the morrow she would get a strong lock fitted to her suitcase; but, in the meanwhile, it seemed unwise to carry her surplus in her bag, for fear of mischance.
She knew of a cache which was her secret.
There was a deep crack at the back of one of the pigeon-holes in the battered roll-top desk, through which she pushed the envelope. It was completely concealed behind the matchwood lining, and she was confident that no one would guess its existence.
But even as she congratulated herself on her foresight, the recollection of the raid caused a doubt to form in her mind.
"Olga," she said, "wait here for me. I have something to do. I won't be long away."
With the sense that she could not reach the office quickly enough, she ran across the deserted square and turned into an alley where she scuffled through layers of half-frozen leaves.
To her relief, the wooden building wore its usual appearance. The door was unlocked and was unguarded by an official. As she rushed up the dark, crazy stairs her heart pounded with suspense. In her haste, she forgot to avoid the broken step and her heel crashed through the rotten wood; but she wrenched it free of splinters and raced up through the darkness of the top flight.
Her luck seemed to hold, for the office was deserted. It presented a scene of desolate disorder with its grimed windows and cold stove. The dirty walls were washed a pale blue—the hue of skim milk—and were covered with pencil scribbles. Although the files and official literature had been removed, the refuse was left, and the floor was littered with papers.
Anna was conscious of nothing but the roll-desk, which was still cluttered with rubbish. Scooping out a bundle of soiled typescript, she thrust her arm into the pigeon-hole and explored the crack.
To her joy, she could feel the top of the envelope.
Even as she congratulated herself, she heard the whine of the street-door being pushed over the stone passage. At the sound she began to panic.
"If it's an official he will confiscate my money," she thought. "I must get it before he comes."
Its removal was a delicate task for slim fingers, and, with time to spare, she could have managed it easily. But flurried by the clatter of heavy boots mounting the stairs, she made a frantic dive to grip a corner and only succeeded in prodding it farther back behind the lining.
As she fished frantically for it, she could feel it slipping away from under her touch. It was now a hopeless enterprise, for the steps had reached the door. She had barely time to spring away from the desk before a youth entered the room.
It was not the police, but one of the regular gang—a shaggy youth who had used the office as a club. Anna remembered that his name was "Ivan," and that, although she accepted him fraternally, she would not have tolerated him as a casual acquaintance.
He was an unpleasant-looking person, with shifty eyes; his hair was long and greasy, while his skin was pitted as a photograph of the surface of the moon.
"What are you doing here, Comrade?" he asked suspiciously.
"I have only just heard the news," she replied quickly. "So I came to see if any one was here who could tell me more. I am quite in the dark about it all."
"I, too," declared Ivan, with an emphasis which matched her own. "Before to-day, I knew nothing at all."
She had to accept his statement, although she was not impressed by his crafty glance.
"It has been a shock to both of us," she said. "But what have you come for?"
"To pick up any trifle they have left," replied the youth. "Paper and pencils are always useful to a student. Also I wish to write letters here. Maybe, I could find a stamp."
Anna clenched her fingers impatiently as Ivan seated himself at the desk. It was evident that he planned a lengthy session, for he laid his lunch—a parcel of garlic-sausage sandwiches—on the blotting-pad.
Tantalised by the check, she wondered whether she could appeal to him for help. She was trying to decide if she could trust him, when, fortunately, she remembered a story about his early youth.
It was whispered that, as a boy, he had been one of the Besprizorny—a band of child-robbers—that operated on a ruthless and wholesale scale.
It was not exactly a recommendation for honesty. Besides, she doubted the value of his services, for his hands were too clumsy for delicate manipulation. He would probably try to spike the envelope with his knife, in which case the notes might be mutilated.
"I think I could ease it out myself, with a manicure tool," she reflected. "But I must wait until he is gone."
"I must go back to Olga," she told Ivan. "When will you be leaving?"
She might have known the answer would be the inevitable Russian "Presently," which spanned, without measuring, every interval of time. There was nothing to do now but to prepare for action and wait her opportunity.
She did not run on her return journey to the café. When she entered it, she found that Olga had gone without leaving any message. To fill the gap of waiting until Ivan had finished his letters, she walked back to the hotel as slowly as the temperature admitted.
The leaves underfoot rustled hoarsely at every step, as though in protest. In the lanes between the tall houses, she caught glimpses of a heaving ale-coloured sea, clotted thickly with cat-ice. Gone was the husky murmur of the trees and the lapping of wine-dark water in an enchanted dusk.
When she reached the hotel, the chambermaid met her in the hall.
"Now you have bought your ticket," she said to Anna, "we can begin our last game of chess."
Anna grimaced slightly at the reminder of her unfulfilled promise to Conrad Stern, as she set the pieces on the board. She lingered in the vestibule making the opening moves, in readiness for her inevitable nightly defeat by the chambermaid, and then went upstairs, to fetch her manicure-case.
As she hastened back to the office, she wondered hopefully whether Ivan had finished his letter.
"Perhaps in another five minutes I shall be on my way to buy my ticket," she thought. "He must be gone. I've given him enough time to clear out the place."
It was an ill-omened suggestion, for, when she entered the room, she stared around her in dismay.
Apparently the former boy-robber had broken his own record. He was there still, seated on the floor and chewing sunflower seeds as he scribbled in a notebook.
But every stick of furniture had disappeared.
"Where is the desk?" she gasped.
"Sold," replied Ivan. "Everything was confiscated by the State. After you left, a dealer arrived and took it all away."
AT first, Anna could only stare at Ivan in stunned silence. It was contrary to her nature, however, to accept defeat. As her brain grew accustomed to the news, she began to think of the possibility of salvage. Her philosophic reflection, "The money's gone, forget it," was altered to "The money's gone so I must go after it."
"Do you know the name of this dealer?" she asked.
"Nicolas Granovsky," replied Ivan.
"What's his address?"
Ivan supplied it, and added in the same breath, "Why do you ask?"
Unable to fabricate a plausible excuse, Anna snapped back at him:
"That is my business."
Leaving him with his curiosity unappeased, she hurried out of the office. Once again, the time complex had her in its grip—raising her temperature and distorting the issue at stake to disproportionate value. At that moment it seemed a matter of desperate urgency that she should recover her money.
She galloped downstairs in dangerous haste, but when she reached the Square she had to stop a man and appeal to him for further directions. Although the dealer's store was not far from the office, it was difficult to locate, since it was situated somewhere amid a tangled district beyond the "backs."
As she half ran down a twisting street, she began to speculate on her chances of success. She had a vague notion that the dealer was legally entitled by purchase to the contents of the desk, in which case he would naturally oppose her claim.
On the other hand, if he had no idea of the value of the envelope, he might be willing to part with it for a tip. It seemed a matter for quick action, allied to bold policy—while much depended on the character of the dealer.
Presently she reached the end of the street which was guarded by wooden posts. She squeezed through them into an alley, running between the backs of old wooden houses. It wound and twisted like the bed of a dried torrent, but led finally into a small court.
There was a bare tree in the middle and its cobbles were choked with fallen leaves. She looked around her, but could see no sign of life. As she paused she imagined she heard a rustling sound somewhere in the distance.
"I believe some one's trailing me," she thought uneasily.
She listened again, but the silence was only broken by the crawl of rusty leaves in the wind. Reassured, she crossed the court and entered a dark passage. It was so narrow that it was almost roofed by the overhanging eaves. Feeling slightly uneasy, she followed its crooked course around a corner and through a low archway.
On the other side was a small yard. It was almost filled by a ruined leaden cistern, broken barrels, and other rubbish. She gazed around her in bewilderment.
"Where's the way out?" she wondered.
Presently she discovered a gap in the wall which was partially hidden behind a pile of butts. It led to another alley—about the width of a narrow pavement.
As she hurried on, she fancied that she heard again the sound of following footsteps.
"I don't like this," she thought distrustfully. "I'm getting farther in, all the time, and it keeps on growing more constricted. Perhaps I was wrongly directed."
She paused, undecided whether to turn back or to press on in search of some outlet. As she did so, she was struck by the absence of life and the frozen silence. There was no drip of water—no distant cry of child. The gloom was so eerie that she was tempted to give up the hunt.
Even as she hesitated, however, the thought of her money which might be waiting for her, round the next corner, inspired her with fresh resolution.
"In an hour's time, perhaps, I'll have my ticket," she thought.
But instead of finding the dealer's store, she seemed to come to a dead end. She rounded the next bend and then stopped with the feeling that some one had opened a gigantic carriage-umbrella right in her face.
A decrepit timbered house barred her way completely, penning her inside a kind of bottle-neck, and inducing a sense of claustrophobia.
"I'm in a trap," she thought foolishly. "I must get out before the other end is closed too."
To her joy, at that moment, a boy came out of the house whistling.
"Granovsky?" she appealed breathlessly.
"Through there," he replied, nodding towards the half-opened door, to indicate that there was a right-of-way through the house.
The inside passage was dark as a cellar, but—ashamed of her recent nerves—she plunged through it boldly, and came out into a little grey square. At its end she recognised Granovsky's store by the office furniture which was dumped outside. It was well stocked with various commodities—tubs of pickled apples, chunks of frozen meat, blocks of solidified tar, glass jars of petroleum, cranberries, chess-sets, and clumsy toys.
As she stopped beside the bureau, which looked incredibly battered in the open, the dealer came out of his store. In his dirty quilted coat and sheepskin cap, he had a moist and mildewed appearance; but like filberts which have been buried in earth, there was sound goodness under the rotting husks. His small black eyes were kind as he listened to Anna's request.
"You have concealed a letter inside the desk?" he remarked. "Search for it, by all means, little one."
He encouraged her with his smile as she inserted her manicure file into the crack of the pigeon-hole. It made contact at once with the envelope and she began to push it gently upwards.
"He's a darling," she thought, smiling up at the dealer.
At that moment, she felt a throb of triumph. With the money at her finger-tips, her ticket was practically bought. The next prod would bring the envelope within her reach.
Even as she exulted, she started at the sound of a familiar voice.
"What are you searching for, Comrade?" asked Ivan. "Is it something that you know to be hidden in the desk?"
"It is a letter," explained the dealer indulgently, as Anna did not speak. "A love-letter, I think."
"If that is all, it is well," remarked Ivan. "But if it should be money—" his eyes glittered, "—it would be wiser to forget it."
"Why?" demanded Anna.
"Because all the office money that was confiscated was proved to be of Fascist origin. Naturally, the police will conclude that the claimant of this hoard is in Fascist pay."
"But I've never discussed politics with any one. I used to listen. That was all," protested Anna.
"Then perhaps you were in Otto's confidence and you lent him money for his own purposes? If that is so, it is yours."
Warned by the crafty gleam in his eye, Anna saw the trap in time to avoid it.
"I was completely in the dark about his wretched propaganda work," she said. "My attitude has always been pro-Soviet. Every one knows my enthusiasm for what has been achieved—and when I've not understood, I've said nothing."
"In that case, any hidden money could not belong to you?" asked Ivan.
Anna had to make a swift decision. The last thing she wanted was to be connected with the office. Since ownership of the money might constitute a link, she decided to renounce it.
"If there is money in this envelope," she said, "it is no concern of mine. Any one can have it who wants it."
"Then stand aside, Comrade, and let me see what is hidden here."
In his eagerness, Ivan tried to pull Anna away from the desk, but she was too quick for him. Before he could reach it, she deliberately pushed the envelope back behind the board. Although this snooping student had forced her to stand and deliver, she was determined that he should share his loot.
"Grand-dad," she said, smiling into the puzzled face of the dealer, "have you a strong young assistant?"
"I have my son," he replied.
"Then call him here. There may be money hidden in the desk you have bought. If so, of course it is a duty to notify the police. But I shall remember nothing." She turned to Ivan and added, "Perhaps your lips could be sealed too, Comrade?"
His face was livid with temper as he realised that he had been tricked into a division of plunder. When a muscular young man came out of the store, Anna spoke to Ivan.
"There is a proverb that tells us not to grasp at the shadow and lose the substance. I have always felt it should be altered to, 'Do not grasp at the substance, lest you lose the shadow.'"
"What do you mean?" he asked sullenly.
"I mean that material things—which can be handled—are not to be compared with spiritual gains, or intangible treasures...Good-bye to you both—and 'Good Hunting.'"
As she walked back through the right-of-way passage, she had to console herself with her own philosophy. Even though her ticket were gone, liberty was better than roubles.
The return journey through the alleys and courts seemed shorter and less complicated than her first venture. There were no footsteps which followed her and halted when she did—keeping always behind the last corner. But as she ploughed through the accumulated leaves, she was vaguely worried by the episode.
It was her first glimpse of the stranglehold of conspiracy and it made her realise that it was possible for an innocent person to be implicated. Fortunately she had escaped the peril, at the cost of her ticket-money and a fright. Yet her mind felt pleated as a pie-frill when she turned into the café and reviewed the situation over tea and cigarettes.
It was not long before she succeeded in smoothing out some of the creases.
"There's nothing to connect me with Fascist funds," she assured herself. "If Ivan or Granovsky wanted to inform the police, they would have to produce the money as evidence. And that is the very last thing they wish to do. It's not mine any longer, it's theirs."
IT was fortunate for the sake of morale that Anna possessed an orderly mind. In spite of recent shocks, she was resolved to concentrate on the actual position, and not to let her imagination be stampeded by a flock of nervous fears.
"It was a mistake to chase that money," she argued. "But that's all behind me now. The fact remains—the money's lost. And as it was already lost before I left the office, I'm no worse off...The first thing to do is to write home for some more."
She puckered her brow as she speculated upon her best source of supply. The obvious person was the lawyer who paid her the allowance left her by her stepfather. This gentleman, however, was not in her favour, owing to his chronic reluctance to write a cheque on demand.
"It will be no good to tell him it's urgent," she thought. "He'll only write a stalling letter, wanting to know what I've already told him, all over again. He'll do anything to put off the agony of parting with my money."
Her criticism was unjust, since she had overdrawn her account and was owing him the next quarter's remittance; but she was too worried to give her legal devil his due.
"I'll write to Uncle Charles," she decided. "He's a business man."
After she had scrawled a note on cheap mauve paper which she bought at the café, she anticipated a speedy end to her troubles. She knew that her uncle would act first and damn her later.
The open door was a little farther away—but she was still quite close to it.
As she licked on the stamp, it was tonic to think of her uncle who, at that moment, would be in his office at his modern flat, dealing with his correspondence. She pictured the comfortable steel furniture—the light which glowed from unexpected panels—the pale tints of green and buff which were just off the shade-card.
Although she could rely on him to be in London at this time of the year, it seemed wiser to guard against the contingency of illness or absence. She dipped her pen again into the pale-green ink.
"Private and confidential," she wrote at the top of the envelope. "If away, to be opened immediately by private secretary, please."
After she had posted her appeal, she made inquiries at the post office about the time it would take for her letter to reach London and the earliest date when she might expect a reply. Then she ringed the happy day in her purse-calendar and forced herself to endure the tedium of waiting.
Meanwhile, her letter was mailed to London with the minimum of postal delay and reached her uncle, who was at home and in excellent health. He was a brisk, ruddy man who looked more like a farmer than a soldier. On his retirement from the army, he had gone into the city, where he proved himself a keen man of business.
His highly-recommended new secretary—Miss Parmiter—had opened and sorted his mail before she handed him the personal letter. He gave her an appreciative glance, for she had already proved herself a treasure.
Then he recognised Anna's handwriting and his smile changed to a scowl, for he had no use for his intellectual niece.
"I'm broke to the wide," he read. "Please send me my fare home and something extra for contingencies to save me from a Russian prison. This realistic stuff is definitely off, as far as I am concerned."
A faint grin touched his lips as he reflected that the superior Anna sounded more human than usual.
"She's coming on," he muttered. "Cadging. Deal with this, Miss Parmiter. And now I'll dictate."
He tossed Anna's note on her pile of routine letters and began the business of the day.
Promptitude combined with efficiency—that was London. Over in Russia, the days crawled by. In spite of her fortitude, Anna felt the strain of waiting in a cold, dark town, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.
Presently she began to make inquiries at the post office, in the hope of a premature response to her S O S. But the official always shook her head and made the same reply.
"Nothing for you to-day, tovarishch."
She reached the ringed day, when, to her bitter disappointment, the position was unchanged. As she walked away stamping to keep her feet warm, she felt a faint tremor of apprehension.
"Suppose something unexpected broke before I could get away," she thought. "Conrad must have had some reason for wanting to pack me off."
For a second, she seemed to see the tip of an octopus-feeler flickering up through sunny green water.
The next minute she regained her self-control, as she reminded herself that her uncle's letter was only a day late.
"I'll try absent treatment," she resolved. "I'll will Uncle Charlie to think of me."
By a curious coincidence, she was then in his thoughts, as he sat in his office at the flat. He was glancing through his pass-book when he stopped to ask his secretary a question.
"Let me see, Miss Parmiter. How much did we send my niece?"
Miss Parmiter raised her delicately-arched brows in surprise as she repeated vaguely, "Your niece?"
Since her usually infallible memory did not appear to be functioning, he proceeded to jog it.
"You remember? The one we had to save from a Russian gaol."
She bit her lip. "Oh, was that a relative? I'm sorry—but naturally I destroyed the note with the rest of the begging letters."
As he glared at her, she was goaded to justify herself.
"You remarked 'Cadging,'" she reminded him, "and you told me to deal with it. If you had wanted me to send a cheque, of course you would have stated the amount."
The knowledge that the mistake was his own filled the colonel with bitterness.
"You are right, Miss Parmiter," he remarked with caustic suavity. "As always, you are ethically and morally right...And now, perhaps you will have the goodness to send fifty pounds to my niece at once."
Miss Parmiter made a swift note.
"I'll deal with it immediately," she promised him. "What is the name?"
"I have already told you—my niece."
"The note was signed 'A' only," Miss Parmiter reminded him.
"Of course. Sorry."
Properly rebuked, the colonel snatched up a pad and wrote Anna's full name and poste restante address in large, legible letters.
Admittedly, Miss Parmiter was a proven treasure, while he was an officer and a gentleman; but for all that, he had to control a savage impulse to bite the ear of his perfect secretary.
A FEW days later, Anna was awakened by the chiming of the church clock. She was glad to wake, for she had been dreaming of some dark, silent place, where she wandered in great desolation of spirit.
"My money's bound to be at the post office this morning," was her first thought.
She had been expecting the draft, from day to day, and therefore had refrained from writing again. The colonel was not only punctilious in business, but so essentially kind that she knew he would not fail her.
For that very reason, she was vaguely worried over the inexplicable delay.
"I can't understand it," she thought. "Little things seem to be combining against me."
As she lay in bed, she stared up at the ceiling, where the cracks meandered like rivers on a map. She had traced their tributaries until she knew them by heart, just as she had memorised the pattern of the faded purple-pink wallpaper, and the spots on the mirror.
"This time next week," she wondered, "where shall I be? I think I'll wish myself upon Uncle Charles just at first. It will be such a change to wake up to built-in furniture and concealed lighting...I wish I knew where Conrad was."
It was unfortunate she thought of Stern, for by natural sequence, he was the bridge that led to Otto—and then the prison, guarded by its sweep of muddy tidal water.
"Why do you look sad?" asked her comrade, the chambermaid, when she brought the privileged Anna her morning roll and coffee.
"I was thinking of my friend who has been arrested," explained Anna.
"That is nothing," shrugged the woman. "If he is wise, he will tickle his memory and tell them all he knows about others. And then it will be those others who will worry."
"Oh, he wouldn't talk."
Even as she made the protest, Anna was not so convinced of Otto's loyalty. Once again, there was a flash of dark whip-lash through green water...
"Suppose he knows nothing of importance?" she asked.
"Then he will be unlucky."
When the chambermaid had gone from the room, Anna's spirits began to rise. After she had drunk her coffee and smoked a cigarette, she was able to take a more reasonable view of the situation.
"I'm desperately sorry for Olga, for she is definitely connected with this Fascist racket. Really, it is a mercy Otto let me down...I'm sure Uncle Charles's remittance will be waiting for me to-day. And even if it is delayed, the Jameses must be here soon."
It was a relief to anticipate their arrival because of their special atmosphere. Whenever they went abroad, they appeared to carry a chunk of British coast with them, to act as a buffer against danger or discomfort. No inconvenience could induce them to relax their standard of necessities, and they always got what they wanted in the face of seeming impossibility.
"Gloria couldn't start a day without her orange juice," thought Anna, "and Cliff couldn't end one without brushing his teeth. They'd carry on as usual in a revolution or an earthquake...Oh, my dears, come quickly."
In imagination she could see them. Gloria—a dazzling Nordic blonde, tall, streamlined and immaculate; Cliff—neat, insignificant and imperturbable. While most people gave the credit for their triumphant progress to Gloria's high-pressure personality, Anna knew that it was due to Cliff, who met every crisis with fortitude and humour.
Feeling restored and hopeful, she hurried out of the hotel to learn her fate. As she walked through the town the streets looked dreary, but the sky was faintly red as a frost-bitten poppy petal, while a beam of pale sunlight glinted on the golden domes of the church.
She hailed it as an omen of good luck and swung confidently across the square, under the hoofs of the rearing horse, and up the dirty stone steps of the post office.
The woman official at the wicket looked at her with resigned patience, for she had grown to regard the girl as the daily nuisance.
"There is nothing for you, Comrade," she said, forestalling Anna's question.
"Are you sure?" protested Anna. "Isn't there some mistake?"
"Nothing for Anna Stephanovitch," declared the woman, pointing to an empty pigeon-hole in proof. "Look for yourself."
"Thank you, Comrade."
Feeling sick with disappointment, Anna went despondently into the empty square. Another long day of boredom stretched before her. There was no opportunity to meet others, since the social club of the office had come to its end. Besides, Otto had been the magnet which attracted and held the floating particles. Now they were all dispersed and, with the exception of Olga and Ivan, Anna had met none of her former associates.
She stood by the statue, debating dully where she could go. It was too chilly to wander indefinitely through the leafless avenues, or to sit on the greened stone steps which led down to the sea.
"Conrad Stern understood how it would be," she thought. "This is why he wanted to know I should be safely back in England. I wish I could get in touch with him and tell him I am still here."
Presently she yielded to temptation and entered the café, although she realised the need for stringest economy. Her surplus was gone and her small reserve was shrinking in an ominous way. Once or twice, of late, when she awoke in the night, she found herself speculating on her course of action if she found herself completely without funds.
That morning, when she entered the over-heated café, the place was crowded and the air thick with the smoke of makhorka tobacco. Peering through the haze, she managed to locate Olga's fair hair, which gleamed like lamplight smudged by fog.
She had not seen her since the morning after the raid, when her own reaction had been distinctly feline. It was not until she found herself greeting the Jewess as a former colleague rather than her successful rival, that she realised the levelling power of a few days of loneliness.
"I'm glad to see you again," she said. "I have a friend—Gloria James—who has golden hair like yours. You make me think of her."
"Has she a lover?" asked Olga indifferently.
"No, only a husband...What news of Otto?"
"One does not expect news, naturally." Olga shrugged her thin shoulders. "One flings a stone into water—there is a circle—and then it is gone."
"But that's defeatist policy," protested Anna. "You know the ropes better than I. Can't you do something?"
"What would be the use, when soon I shall join him there?"
A flame was lit at the back of Olga's eyes and her voice grew vibrant as she went on speaking.
"I shall go through the same door as Otto—and I shall never come out. Presently people will ask when my trial will be. They will hear it is postponed. Always postponed...And then, one day, when the sun is shining, some one will mention that I was shot, a very long time ago."
Anna had never met Olga in such a cheerful frame of mind. She was worked up to a condition of ecstasy when she seemed immune to physical feeling.
"I could run a pin into her and she would not feel any prick," she told herself, before she spoke to the Jewess sharply.
"Olga, don't talk such utter nonsense."
"But it is a long time since I had a new experience," complained Olga. "I am so bored. Besides, life stunts the soul. Far better die."
Although Anna was positive that Olga was merely dramatising the situation—for the sake of sensation, when there was no threat of personal danger—she felt an unpleasant recoil at the Jewess's next remark.
"You too. Your name will also be on the list."
"What do you mean? You are simply—"
Anna broke off abruptly, for she was suddenly conscious of a general hush over the room. The door had been pushed open and a heavy, blonde woman in breeches and big boots crashed her way towards a table.
It was the People's Prosecutor.
AS she watched, Anna was struck by a general movement of redistribution. Before the People's Prosecutor could reach the nearest table, it was vacated, while a wide circle was cleared around it, although the space was crowded to capacity. Those who were near the door slipped out of the café unobtrusively; but after the first stunned pause, the majority of patrons went on smoking, drinking and playing chess.
In spite of this demonstration of unconcern, voices were pitched lower and eyes kept shifting uneasily in the direction of the executioner. She seemed to accept her isolation as homage to her position. As though conscious of the gulf between herself and the company, she swallowed the spirits which the buffet attendant carried deferentially to her table, without a glance around the room.
Anna noticed that she had lost that blaze of brutality and brilliancy which imparted to her face some of the beauty of the damned. Dull-eyed and leaden-lipped—she stretched out her heavy legs and stared fixedly at the table. At that moment she looked as void of human feeling as the metal rider in the square.
Suddenly Anna realised her in her official capacity of automatic-killer. With a rush of horror she imagined the procedure. Drink to steady her nerve, but not to blur her eye, before tramping down to the cellar—to dispose of her clients, systematically and by batches. No other thought there but her aim and her numbers. Afterwards—staggering up to the daylight and drinking again—only, this time, she would not count her glasses.
Anna started as the People's Prosecutor drained her glass, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and then got up with a scrape of nailed soles on the floor. As she buttoned up her sheepskin coat she looked around her for the first time, slowly and deliberately.
In spite of her own immunity, Anna felt relieved when she was passed over in the official tally, as though non-existent. After the People's Prosecutor had swaggered out of the café, she forced herself to discuss her with philosophic detachment.
"It's curious, Olga, to reflect that the only difference between her and some decent peasant-woman, is a defective gland or surplus secretion, or perhaps an infinitesimal pressure on the brain. But she's not so horrible as I thought, because she's impersonal...Only—it makes one realise the hopelessness of explaining a—a mistake to that."
For a moment she felt overwhelmed by the conception of a system so vast that the individual could only receive official recognition when added to nine hundred and ninety-nine other units. She had a vision of insignificant human beings being squeezed inside a huge metal fist—akin to a factory-feed—which shook red spatters over a frozen white waste.
Olga distracted her attention by speaking in tones of tragic triumph.
"She looked at me. I am marked."
"She looked at every one," Anna told her. "Don't be morbid. Arrests are not her business. She's only the instrument...But where has she been? I saw her for the first time the morning after the raid, and I haven't seen her since."
"She comes and goes. On business."
"Then why worry? If they had anything against you, you'd have been arrested with Otto."
"No, that is not their way. We can wait their convenience. Depend on it, we are all down in the list. But the prison is full. When they are ready to deal with us, we are here. If we tried to get away, we should be stopped at the frontier."
"I wish you wouldn't include me," said Anna. "I'm an outsider."
"But you lent Otto money for his work."
"No one can prove it." Anna was too annoyed by the persistence to prove its absurdity. "There's another small fact you seem to forget," she went on. "I'm a British subject."
To her surprise Olga burst into derisive laughter.
"You British!" she cried. "Tell lies if you must try to save your skin, but not stupid lies, which no one will believe. I do not say that you are Russian. But whatever you are, you are certainly not English."
"I certainly am," declared Anna.
"But I have heard you speak English with Stern. You think before you speak, as one may do with a foreign language."
"I'm deliberate, because I don't like people who babble inanities."
"But you don't look like an English girl."
"You mean I'm not a stressed type. I'm dark instead of being fair, and I haven't a rosy pudding-face. Don't be absurd, Olga. You know that most nationalities are getting standardised by the screen."
As she spoke, Anna saw herself through Olga's spectacles, with her dark unwaved hair and moulded face, which had grown paler recently through worry.
"They all expect me to look like a Wimbledon tennis-player," she thought.
For a moment her heart sank as she considered the muddle which could result from pigheaded local authority. It was like the metal rider in the square—deaf and blind. If any stupid mistake were made about her nationality, it would not listen to her explanation. Of course, later, it might be forced to acknowledge a technical error; but when enlightenment occurred it was probable that she might not be in a position to be personally interested.
Suddenly her gloomy fears were banished, as though a ray of light had cleft her brain.
"My passport," she thought. "What a fool I am."
She felt she wanted to shout with joy as she sprang from her seat.
"Olga," she said, "thank you. You've just reminded me of something important. Good-bye. If I don't see you again, good luck."
"Good-bye, Comrade." Olga's voice was indifferent. "If you still cling to life you must leave this town at once. To-morrow may be too late."
Her prophecy had lost any power to depress Anna, as she rushed from the café and dashed across the square. She was so positive that she had guessed the explanation of the delayed money that she felt the draft was as good as in her possession. At the same time, she blamed herself bitterly for a lapse of memory which might have entailed unpleasant consequences.
It was this. She had forgotten her father's name.
In the circumstances the mistake was natural. She had been called "Anna Stephanovitch" from her early childhood, since it was locally assumed that her stepfather was her real parent. On two occasions—when she had gone to school, and later, to Oxford—he had pointed out to her the need of a revised choice; but she had refused to make any change.
Her decision was part loyalty and affection for him, and part preference for what—in her youthful judgment—was a superior name.
Except for rare occasions when she had to sign legal documents, she had never written her rightful title of "Brown." Every letter she had received since her visit to Russia had been addressed to "Anna Stephanovitch" as a matter of course. But there was one person to whom she would never be anything but "Ann Brown," and that person was her father's brother—Colonel Brown.
In her haste to reach the post office, she kept slipping on the leaves which were frozen in layers to the cobbles, so that she was out of breath from exertion when she ran up the steps. The official at the wicket frowned in recognition.
"I have already told you," she said, "there is nothing—"
"Nothing for Anna Stephanovitch," finished Anna. "But is there anything for Ann Brown?"
The official looked at her suspiciously.
"That is not your business," she said severely. "I do not understand why you should know about it."
"Then it's true that there is money here for Ann Brown, sent from London?"
"Yes," admitted the woman. "It has been here since yesterday, waiting to be claimed."
Anna's face was radiant as she realised that this morning Ann Brown was a winner.
"Pay it to me, please," she said, "I am Ann Brown."
The woman smiled incredulously.
"That is a useless fraud," she told Ann. "Every one knows that you are Anna Stephanovitch."
"Then it's fortunate I can prove my words."
Anna opened her bag and produced her passport with the sensation of one playing the ace of trumps.
The official studied it with a puzzled frown. While the particulars stated that Ann Brown was of British parentage, and the descriptive details corresponded with Anna's personal appearance, the photograph did not help her claim. Besides being libellous, it had been taken when she wore her hair cut in a fringe, which caught the light and made her appear fairer than she actually was.
Presently the official arrived at a decision.
"This is Ann Brown's passport," she said. "I do not know how you got it. For you are Anna Stephanovitch. I cannot pay you Ann Brown's money."
ANNA was first amused, then vaguely irritated by the woman's stupidity; but as she explained the situation in detail it gradually dawned upon her that it was impossible to make any impression on the official mentality. Protests, appeals and even threats were received with the same formula.
"I must have proof of identity. Otherwise it is not in order to pay you this money."
Presently she was forced to acknowledge a state of deadlock. In the circumstances it seemed futile to persist, especially as it was not a question of personal malice. The woman's face wore the dull expression of a limited imagination; otherwise she appeared kind, patient and conscientious.
"Listen, Comrade," said Anna at last. "If you have not the authority to pay this money, will you state the facts to your superior official?"
"I will do that," agreed the woman.
After repeated efforts to compromise with "Seychas"—the Russian "Presently"—the official promised to telephone to Leningrad without delay for further instructions.
In spite of the check, Anna returned to the café in a hopeful frame of mind. At the worst, her return to England could be delayed for only a limited period.
"I'll wash out the Jameses altogether," she decided. "And I had better not count on the post office crowd. They'll 'Seychas' until the crow turns white...No, all I have to do is to write to Uncle Charles and ask him to telegraph his authority to pay the draft to Anna Stephanovitch.'"
As she scrawled another note on the atrocious mauve paper she smiled faintly.
"In future I shall have to cultivate Ann Brown," she told herself. "It wasn't clever to ignore her."
The Hampstead mansion was sold, her mother was in the Argentine, her stepfather was in Finchley cemetery; but for all that, Anna was on her homeward way.
Although the tedium of another empty day stretched before her, she was able now to make plans to fit the situation. To begin with the question of finance, it was necessary to budget for a definite period of waiting.
"So many days there and so many days back," she calculated, "and a margin for delay. Charles may have his back up and send the authority with a stinging letter instead of wiring. But I can hang out, if I'm careful."
She finished the letter and then looked around her to find some distraction. As she studied the company, she was struck by the completeness with which she had merged her own identity into the Komsomol. With equality in view, she had roamed the streets without hat or stockings and had worn only her plainest clothes.
For the first time she regretted the distinctive clothes left behind in her wardrobe in London, as she realised that she looked more like her neighbour than herself.
Since she could recognise none of Otto's special circle of youth, she was forced to return to the Jewess's table.
"It wasn't 'good-bye,' Olga, after all," she said. "I ought to be buying my ticket to England. But there has been a check."
Olga looked up indifferently and asked no question. She was too engrossed in herself to spare any interest for Anna's concerns.
"It will be 'good-bye' soon enough," she said. "I expect my summons any moment. Afterwards you will often think of me and you will wonder about my fate. But you must be sure of this. I shall pay the extreme penalty with magnificent courage, and I shall anticipate the period after death—if any—with scientific curiosity."
In her turn Anna made no comment, for she knew that the Jewess flew to extremes—heading for heaven or hell, according to her mood.
"Shall we play draughts?" she asked briskly.
"If you like. One has to pass the time of waiting."
Anna arranged the pieces and made the opening move, which was the signal for Olga to go into a trance. She sat motionless, with her head propped up by her hand, while she stared down at the board.
Presently Anna grew impatient and tried to prod her opponent.
"I'm going out for a few minutes to post my letter," she said. "It's important, although you may not grasp the fact. I'll probably be back long before you've made your move."
Olga did not look up from the squares.
"Good-bye, Comrade," she said.
The outside air was doubly raw after the heat of the café. Anna walked briskly to the post office in a glow of healthy indignation which would have appealed to her uncle, Colonel Brown.
"I'm the injured person," she reminded herself. "If Olga were not a mass of egotism she would come out of her sulks and admit that she and Otto have given me a raw deal. My money's on her back at this moment, while I'm short of my fare home. I've had enough of this sort of comradeship to last me for a long time."
The act of dropping her letter into the slit turned the current of her thoughts. Contact was now definitely established between this winter-witched square and her uncle's modern flat.
When she returned to the café, Olga's chair was occupied by a youth with a bright thin face and a charming smile.
"I've made my move, Comrade," he said, looking up from the board.
"Where's Olga?" asked Anna as she took the vacant chair.
"Gone," he replied. "But it seemed unfriendly to leave you in the lurch. I have time for one quick game before I go back to my work."
Anna found her new opponent a good exchange for Olga. He was quick-witted, for he laid effective snares for her, even while he talked with enthusiasm. He told her of his clerical job, his flatlet, his clothes and even his bed.
"Under the old system, I should be a serf, sleeping in my clothes on top of a stove," he explained. "I should be unable to read or write. Now I continue to educate myself, at night."
"How grateful you must be to the Soviet," said Anna.
"I worship it. I have only hatred for those who would betray it. I would have no pity for them."
Anna wondered uneasily whether the youth knew of her former association with Otto.
"I feel just as you do," she said, speaking with emphasis. "It is an unforgivable crime to betray one's country...How do they know which citizens are disloyal?"
"There are various methods," the youth told her. "One is to arrest some insignificant man and to question him—under certain conditions—until he becomes so weary that he will talk about others who may be important. Then he will be set free. So he has no complaint."
He beamed at her as he produced this proof of philanthropy, but Anna saw the flaw.
"Suppose he incriminated an innocent person?"
"That is unlikely. Each of us makes his own fate. What we did yesterday is waiting to meet us to-morrow."
"But if there was a mistake," persisted Anna, "would it be discovered in time?"
"That depends. Sometimes a suspected person may be imprisoned for months without a trial. At other times, action is swift. For example, only yesterday I was in a house where the husband said good-bye to his wife in the morning, as usual, and went to his office. He did not return to his midday meal, and that evening she heard, over the radio, that he had been shot. That is what the Americans would call 'some hustle.'"
"Not at all. The charge was sabotage, and it was proved up to the hilt."
As he spoke, the youth smiled at her in a friendly manner and made his king leap over her remaining pieces.
"That finishes our game," he said. "It was too short. I think your mind was not set on it."
"I'm afraid I didn't concentrate," confessed Anna. "As a matter of fact, I kept wondering what had become of Olga."
The clerk rose from his chair.
"I thought you knew that," he said. "Directly after you went out of the café she was arrested."
AS she listened, Anna was overwhelmed by self-reproach. While she was indulging in a petty grievance against Olga and accusing her of pose, the actual tragedy had taken place.
The young clerk noticed her pallor.
"You look shocked," he remarked. "Why? In every country treason is punished justly. In Germany they behead traitors, and in England they send them to the Tower of London. You must remember her crime. She flaunted her wages in our faces. That costly new fur coat could only be bought with Fascist money."
Anna suppressed an hysterical laugh at his description of the cheap pelt.
"Perhaps it's just as well they don't know it was bought with my money," she thought.
Then she remembered how the Jewess kept stroking her sleeve, almost with affection, as though she touched Otto through his gift; and she knew instinctively that it would sustain her courage when she swaggered down to a cellar.
"That damnable woman," she muttered incautiously.
"Olga?" asked the clerk.
"No, the People's Prosecutor. I'm told she shoots her own people like cattle."
"That is true." The youth's bright face dimmed. "But she never misses, and all is over at once. Of course she is a little mad, and she becomes infuriated by certain things. Otherwise she is a machine."
"What are those special dislikes?"
"Well, to start with, they say she hates the English."
Anna cast a quick glance around the room, where alien faces seemed to be suspended in the smoky air. Hitherto she had been unconscious of the atmosphere which was heavy with the fumes of evil-smelling makhorka tobacco. But now it seemed to pour over her in a wave of heated fug, so that she felt sick.
"How does she show her dislike?" she asked faintly.
"She does nothing," was the reassuring reply. "It is not policy to interfere with a British subject. It is merely that she has this prejudice...She has another strange fancy: she is jealous of any mother with a young child."
"I do not know who that is...But most of all, she hates any woman with red hair. That turns her into a fury when she is drunk and she becomes quite mad...And now, Comrade, I must go. I hope we shall meet again for another game."
Anna smiled agreement as she wiped her brow. His explanation had not only restored her calm, but made her feel much better. At this point she could congratulate herself on being dark and unmarried, while her nationality remained her protection.
Yet, in spite of the shadow of Olga's fate, her thoughts were not stretched out towards the future. Instead, without apparent connecting sequence, they leaped back into the past and she saw again the shop which had been the scene of her first bid for economic freedom.
Its memory was so vivid that it actually seemed to glide before her eyes like a dark ancient ark, lit with shafts of dusty sunlight and loaded with its cargo of early-season millinery.
It sailed past her, blocking out the café, and then was gone, leaving her slightly dazed.
"What made me think of it again?" she wondered.
The next second she had the clue, in the clerk's recent remark, "What we did yesterday is waiting to meet us to-morrow." It had linked itself to a speech she had heard before, when she was at the shop.
The cheap drapery store was situated in a London suburb. The building was low-ceiled and dark, with floors that rode up and down in switchbacks, and a mouse-hole at the end of nearly every board. She remembered shelves bulging with emerald-green cardboard boxes—counters stacked high with Manchester goods—floating particles of fluff—the smell of unbleached calico and linoleum.
It was here she got her job in the cash-desk. She was tall for her age and expert at figures, but the extra qualification which secured her engagement was her ability to speak French. It enabled her to double her role of "Cash" with that of "On," since the shop window bore the legend, "Ici on parle Français."
At first she was thrilled by the novelty of being a wage-earner, but as soon as she grew used to routine she rebelled against being imprisoned in a cage. She had hoped to experience some great emotional stimulus in joining the army of workers, but she failed to find any point of contact with her companions. Instead of feeling a throb of fraternity, she considered them cheap.
Judged by the standard of an intelligent and critical schoolgirl, everything connected with the shop was cheap—minds, bodies, surroundings, clothes. Even the shop-walker, in his dusty frock-coat and cracked boots, was so shabby as to suggest sweated labour. A thin figure, with sallow, clean-shaven face, he paced the floor, lost in a perpetual dream.
Although he was vaguely believed to be a chronic inebriate, the man was a mystery. He was called "Levinski," but no one knew his real name or his nationality. In Anna's opinion, his most interesting characteristic was the method by which he managed to steer clear of disaster.
By some effort of will-power, he had trained an outpost of his brain to be responsive to the signal of the shop. However deeply sunken he might appear, whenever an assistant made a call upon his services, he retained mastery of a sense which compelled him to scrawl the hieroglyphics—which passed for signature—upon the proffered bill.
Anna remembered him chiefly because of their last—and only—conversation. It happened one early-closing day when the other assistants had left the shop. She lingered behind to tidy her desk, while the shopwalker continued to pace the deserted department.
Outside the window the spring sun was shining on the daffodils in the hawkers' baskets. One beam slanted through the glass and revealed the air to be thick as soup with floating particles of fluff and dust. It mercilessly accentuated the artifice of the festooned violets and primroses with which the display was dressed.
Suddenly Anna felt that she could endure her cage no longer. With a sense of joyous deliberation she burst out of its confinement, and then stood for a moment looking around her for the last time.
The moment was so poignant that she had to share it with some one.
"Good-bye, Mr. Levinski," she called to the shopwalker. "I'm not coming back. I'm going home."
It was a little time before he realised that the name belonged to him. When at last he became aware of her presence, he saw only a black shape with a blank oval for face.
"I hate this shop," said Anna impulsively. "Don't you hate it too?"
"Why should I?" he asked dully. "For the present it is an essential. But it affects me not at all."
"But it should," she cried. "Every experience should mean something. But this has taught me nothing. It's a dead end, for it leads nowhere."
As though her words had captured his attention, he seemed to focus her with his strange blurred eyes. When he spoke, in spite of the difference in appearance, he reminded her of her stepfather.
"Little one," he said, "you are wrong. All is part of a scheme. You ask 'Why?' But there is also the 'Because.'...It may be you came here to meet some one who will control your destiny. One day, in your hour of peril, the shop may speak."
He turned away and she forgot him directly she left the shop.
For the first time in years she thought of his prophecy as she sat in the café. It had been crowded out by other experiences in the labour market, which also appeared barren of practical result.
Yet in spite of her mother's counter arguments, she had learned valuable lessons as a down-and-out in the London streets. Destitution had taught her the wealth of unsuspected charity and also how much she could endure and yet keep flesh and spirit intact.
In this mental stocktaking, the shop stood out as her only failure.
"Do you believe that the future is only the past entered by a different door?" she asked the youth, who had begun to button up his bulky wadded coat.
"Every one must," he replied. "It is the only way to justify life."
"Well, we shall see."
Anna looked around the café, but could detect no ripple of excitement. The patrons were carrying on as before she went out to post her letter. Although she strained her ears, she could catch no mention of Olga's name.
"They don't seem very concerned about Olga," she said.
"That is nothing new," explained the clerk. "Every one knew that she would be arrested."
"Yes, she expected it too, but I didn't believe her...She told me, too, that my name was down in the list."
The youth's vivid face expressed incredulous horror.
"Oh, no," he exclaimed, "you are too nice. I trust your face. Tell me how that can possibly be."
Anna was only too eager to explain the situation to a disinterested judgment, especially as the youth's intelligence appeared to be above the average. What was more important, he seemed to know all the tavern gossip of the town.
When she had finished her explanation, he laughed at her fears.
"That was only Olga's spite. When one sinks, one wants to drag some one else under. Listen, Comrade. Many of the Komsomol used to meet in Otto's newspaper office, and you were one of these insignificant little ones. It is true that you were Otto's friend, but that was soon finished. Every one knew when Olga took your place and wore silk stockings. Besides, see how shabby you are. It is plain you had no Fascist money."
As his eyes rested on her worn leather coat, Anna felt grateful, after all, that she had left her impressive wardrobe behind her in London.
"Is any one who had money under suspicion?" she asked.
"Oh, no, Comrade, only when it is proved to be payment for anti-Soviet propaganda. At this time the student Ivan is spending more money than he earns. He is under observation and will be called on to give some explanation, for he used to go to the office."
"But he could lie to incriminate some innocent person," suggested Anna. "Would he be believed?"
She had considered it wiser to suppress the incident of the bureau, so she waited for the clerk's reply with sharp anxiety.
"Certainly not without proof," he said.
"But suppose the proof was a mistake on some one's part?"
"Ah, that would be most unhappy. For if this proof is once given, the Soviet cannot afford to give the accused the benefit of the doubt. We work for posterity and we must always consider the future at the expense of the present."
Anna's heart lightened as she listened, since there was nothing to connect her directly with money that Ivan had spent. Even if he named her as the source of his wealth, his story would be considered too thin for credence.
"I'll meet you here to-morrow for another game of draughts," she told the clerk.
In spite of Olga's prophecy, she scarcely thought of the Jewess that night, for she considered it better to try to forget her. After all, she had deliberately chosen intrigue in preference to fair-dealing, and was prepared to pay the penalty.
Anna spent the evening in the crowded uncomfortable restaurant of the hotel, listening to the wireless. It made her feel quite homesick for a B.B.C. programme, while the noise caused her to regret the sanctuary of her bedroom, but she stuck it out. When she went to bed, at a late hour, she read herself to sleep with a stiff book on philosophy.
In the early hours of the morning she started up in bed, wide-awake at a sudden recollection.
Her money had been put into one of Otto's official printed envelopes. Therefore, if he had written her name and the amount deposited on the outside, this would appear a direct proof that she had been in receipt of the tainted payments.
UNABLE to sleep again, Anna lay awake—the prey of gnawing anxiety. In spite of every effort to force her memory, it proved unreliable. Sometimes it assured her that the envelope was blank, but at others, it reminded her of pencilled markings.
She had to admit the likelihood of the latter, since Otto was businesslike in his methods. In proof, she could remember clearly the manner in which he returned the money. He whipped the envelope from the safe with a swift, dramatic gesture, as though he had read her name at a glance.
As she tossed, she tortured herself with vain regrets. If only the Ogpu had waited just one day longer before it arrested Otto, she would now be safe in London; or again, if only she had discussed the situation with Conrad, and told him that her money was in the office safe, he would have stayed on to see her through her difficulties.
But because her pride was stung, she had pretended to treat the affair lightly and had sheered away from the subject. As she thought about it, she remembered how Conrad had delayed his own departure in order to assure himself that she would be leaving Russia immediately.
When the first wan gleam of dawn lightened her window, this solicitude assumed an ominous aspect. It was in vain she forced herself to look on the brighter side of the picture. Although her money lying at the post office was so much frozen capital, a few days would bring the authority to liquidate it. Even if the worst happened and she was arrested, she had her passport to prove her identity and also the threat of Colonel Brown.
Unfortunately these safeguards depended on that vital element of time. It was only yesterday that the young clerk had told her about a rushed execution. Probably the story was a sensational rumour, but the shock of Olga's arrest had broken her nerve.
When she got up and dressed she hardly recognised the reflection of her face. The haggard cheeks and haunted eyes which stared at her from the glass seemed to belong to some tragic stranger. Coffee and her first cigarette, however, restored her to a degree when she could realise that her fear was due to nervous tension, and also to trace the causes of her collapse.
They were loneliness, boredom, confinement and lack of nourishment, since she was forced to economise over her food. Without a roll, and also without much hope, she set out on her daily walk to the post office. It was a raw morning with an occasional sprinkling of frozen snow, drifting down slowly, as though sifted from a very great height. Owing to the early hour, most of the houses and shops were still shuttered, which gave her the impression of passing through a dying town.
When she entered the post office the woman official, who was sorting mail with chilblained hands, looked up and shook her head.
"Nothing for you, Comrade," she said mechanically.
"Has the authority come through from Leningrad?" asked Anna.
"Have you asked for it?"
Anna had expected delay, so was not unduly disappointed.
"I want to make a long-distance call to my uncle in London," she told the official. "Will you put it through for me?"
"Yes, but it will be expensive."
"Oh, I can't pay for it. But if my uncle guarantees payment, before I take the call, won't that be all right?"
"No, it is against regulations. The sender must pay."
Anna made another attempt to bargain with authority.
"Will you ring him up and ask him to ring me up immediately?" she petitioned.
"I cannot," explained the woman. "It is long-distance, and he might not reply. I cannot take the risk."
"Then I suppose it's no good asking you to send a telegram to be paid for at the other end?"
Anna turned away dejectedly and looked through the dirty double-glass of the door out into a grey glazed world. Soon the port would be closed and the town sealed up for the winter. Everything appeared so bleak and hopeless that she made an effort to get outside herself and view the situation with the detachment of a stranger.
The mental exercise did her good, for it eased her irritation with the postmistress. As he looked at the dull, patient face, the woman ceased to parade as petty niggardly authority, but seemed rather a pathetic human.
"Your chilblains look very painful, Comrade," she said. "Have you ever tried rubbing them with tallow? It's an old country remedy. My mother's nurse told me of it."
The woman listened with interest to the suggestion.
"I'll try it," she said.
"And you won't forget to ring Leningrad to-day about my money?" Anna reminded her.
To her astonishment, the post-mistress crossed to the telephone.
"I can do so now as well as later," she said, with the air of one who had made a startling experiment in time.
As she took up the receiver, the official mind was stimulated by a further flash of intuition.
"If you are indeed English," she said, "why don't you ask the rich ladyship to pay for your long-distance call?"
Anna smiled her thanks and hurried through the door before the important call could be interrupted further. When she was outside, she looked doubtful.
"Lady Evans," she murmured. "I wonder."
Lady Evans was a very wealthy woman with important shipping interests, who had come to Russia in order to found an animal welfare society. Anna had never seen her, to her knowledge, which was not surprising, since, until recently, she had been living exclusively inside her own mirage; but she had heard gossip about her, both at home and abroad.
During the sessions around the office stove, her ladyship was a favourite subject for malicious parody by Otto's wild students. As a well-known philanthropist and an especial benefactor of destitute children, she was in a position to control the government of her charities, while she could not control her own tongue or temper. Intolerant of incompetence and weakness, insensitive to criticism, and blunt to rudeness, she was unpopular with most of the members of her committees.
Yet the fact remained that the driving power of her insults achieved results far in advance of those of rival societies. The very conditions she alleviated kept her in such a state of chronic anger that she was a formidable opponent to drift or compromise.
It was only pressure of necessity which forced Anna to appeal to her for help. She felt sure that an unpleasant interview was in front of her, as she mounted the double flight of stone steps before the Hotel Dom, which was Lady Evans's headquarters.
After she had passed through the revolving doors she lingered in hesitation. The place was but a shadow of its former magnificence, but it appeared vast and imposing in contrast with her shabby communal lodging. The gilding was chipped off the domed segmental ceiling in patches large as saucers, and the painted frescoes were dirty. In every panel was set a long mirror which reflected an array of statues, potted palms—adorned with white paper bows—pampas-grass and waxed fruit.
As the clerk at the bureau was engaged with a client, she looked around her until she caught sight of Lady Evans's name painted on a door at the far end of the lounge. She threaded her way through thickets of grass-green, buttoned velvet divans and chairs, and rapped on the panels before her courage could cool.
"Come in," said an irritable voice in English.
Anna recognised Lady Evans at once from her photographs in the pictorial press. She was a stout, middle-aged woman with short puggy features, carefully waved brown hair and small dark eyes which were both angry and intelligent. She wore a travelling suit of battleship grey and stood beside the telephone.
"Shut the door," she commanded, before she went on with her conversation.
As she waited, Anna looked around the room which was furnished as an office, with a roll-desk and files. From an inner compartment sounded the tapping of a defective typewriter. Then she glanced nervously at the puckered brow of Lady Evans and realised that the time was not propitious for a request.
The lady appeared to be furious with somebody for an inability to understand English. Apparently she included the telephone in the conspiracy to withhold information, judging by her maltreatment of the instrument. Presently she switched over to German, which she spoke well and fluently, and after a further exchange of hostilities the interview ended to a slam of the receiver.
Dropping heavily down on her swivel-chair, she spoke to Anna.
Anna moistened her lips in readiness for her rehearsed story.
"My name is Ann Brown. I want to go back to England, but I've lost my money and—"
"And you want me to pay your railway fare?" interrupted Lady Evans.
"No—only to lend me enough to put a call through to my uncle, Colonel Brown, in London. I must ask him to cable me some money immediately. I will repay you directly it comes."
Lady Evans tapped her teeth with her pencil and gazed pointedly at Anna's disreputable leather coat.
"Every down-and-out English person seems to regard me as the National Bank," she said. "They forget I'm not here to help stranded compatriots, but to help the animals. And God knows they need help...Do you do any work for children or animals?"
"Not at present," confessed Anna. "I'm fond of both, but—but there's been so little time since I left Oxford."
"H'm! Oxford. Why did you come to Russia?"
"For a holiday. Partly educational."
"Can you assure me you've been mixed up with no political party here?"
"I've taken no part in politics."
In the pause that followed, Anna held her breath while she hoped for the best. Presently Lady Evans frowned, as though confronted with a distasteful duty.
"I want every rouble I have for this work," she said. "But as you're an English girl, I suppose I must take a chance. The telephone here is in constant use, so you must go to the post office. I must send some one with you to pay for your call."
"Of course," agreed Anna joyously. "For all you know, I'm an impostor. I can't tell you how grateful I am to you."
Lady Evans waved away her thanks as waste of time.
"We are specially rushed at present," she said crossly. "I have to return to England soon, and I want to leave everything in working order. It's inconvenient to spare any staff—but there's a student I've engaged for extra typing...Ivan."
Although there must have been many students named "Ivan" in the town, Anna knew instinctively which would be first to scent an opportunity to his advantage. Yet in spite of her flutter of apprehension, it was a shock actually to see the greasy spiked hair and pitted skin of the pre-Besprizorny youth.
As he glanced at her he gave a cry of astonished recognition.
At the name, Lady Evans's face flushed with sudden anger.
"You distinctly told me you were English," she said accusingly.
"I am," declared Anna. "I can explain everything."
Unprepared for its recital, she floundered into a life-history which grew involved and incoherent, as Lady Evans stared at her with sceptical eyes. At its end, her ladyship snorted.
"I still fail to understand why you did not resume your own father's name directly you were old enough to think for yourself," she said coldly.
"Oh, 'Brown' seemed too hopelessly commonplace," confessed Anna. She was so anxious to establish her credentials, at the risk of taking punishment, that she believed that candour would serve her best. "You know how precious schoolgirls are."
She realised that the truth was mistaken policy, when Lady Evans's face grew grimmer.
"I cannot follow your reasoning," she said. "I married directly I left Cambridge—when I was little more than a glorified schoolgirl. My maiden name was 'Majoribanks,' but I was proud to change it for that of a good man whom I could love and respect."
"I'm sorry," faltered Anna. "But, Lady Evans, all this happened some time ago. I realise my mistake now. And I'm desperately anxious to get back to England. Please may we go over to the post office?"
Unfortunately, Lady Evans did not reply at once. The pause was Ivan's chance to contribute to a conversation which was only partly intelligible to him.
"Anna Stephanovitch came to Russia as the particular friend of the newspaper editor who is now in prison for anti-Soviet propaganda," he informed Lady Evans. "She was always to be met in his office."
"His friend?" echoed Lady Evans, banging her desk with her fist. "That settles it. You'll get no help from me...I've started useful work to alleviate suffering, in the face of appalling inertia and opposition. I have to depend on my friendly relations with the local authorities for its chance of success. I would not allow my own daughter to endanger it, if she were fool enough to get mixed up with foreign politics. It's scandalous behaviour, to say the least of it, when one is a guest in another country. Why, it's nearly as bad as trying to tempt away a servant, while one is staying in a friend's house."
Breathless with passion, Lady Evans threw open the door of the office.
"I must ask you to go at once...No, I'll listen to no more explanations. My time is too valuable to waste. I'm only sorry you came."
"I'm sorry too," said Anna. "I wish your work good luck, and I wouldn't imperil it for the world. But I really am in a hole. I still need money—urgently."
Feeling suddenly reckless, she appealed to Ivan.
"Ivan, will you lend me enough to put through a call to London? I promise immediate repayment, and—and you shall have double money as interest on the loan."
She saw how his eyes glittered at the bribe, as he glanced swiftly at Lady Evans, before turning in the direction of the inner office. If she needed further proof of the danger of admitting to the possession of surplus roubles, she received it then.
He shook his head vehemently.
"How could you ask me such a foolish question, Comrade?" he said reproachfully. "Is it to make a mock of me? Every one knows I am a poor student. At present I earn this small extra from her gracious ladyship, but it only buys food. I have nothing to spare."
ANNA felt curiously cold behind her ears when the revolving doors of the Hotel Dom whirled her out into the grey glazed world. Her interview left her stunned by its implication. Not only had it made her realise the reality of that rushing underground sewer—whose current was so strong that even Lady Evans dreaded its suction—but it had also projected the suggestion that she herself was involved.
As she walked slowly away, her flare of anger died down. Although Lady Evans had practically thrown her out of the office, she felt no sense of injury. On the contrary, she respected her for a pugnacious courage and force of purpose which had driven a wedge through the prevailing prejudice.
"She was rude and hateful," she told herself, "but she was ready to help me until Ivan spilt the beans. She was angry only because she was frightened of being connected with me...That shows me where I really stand."
The sense of being outside the help of the influential Englishwoman was disastrous to her own self-esteem. It made her feel a pariah—vulnerable to every stab in the back. Although her conscience was clear, her past friendship with Otto now seemed stamped with disloyalty to the Soviet.
The weather had not lightened with noon, and the town was partially smudged out with a freezing grey mist. The five bulbous towers on the church looked tarnished as the gilding on a circus van. Feeling that she must escape from the gloom and talk to some one, she went back to her hotel.
When the friendly chambermaid entered her room, she was ready to enlighten her on a subject which was beginning to assume a morbid fascination—espionage.
"There are eyes everywhere," she told Anna. "In every place there is always some one who watches and listens."
"Naturally. This is a place where strangers come and go."
"Nadya, are you—"
"Hush, come closer. You are my little sister, Anna, and I love you. But if I had proof that you were an enemy to the State, I should do my duty."
Anna managed to give a hollow laugh.
"Rather a rough way to treat a little sister," she remarked. "What would be the charge?"
"Economic espionage, since you are a foreigner."
The answer came so promptly that Anna felt vaguely disconcerted as she glanced at the waxed white face.
"I'm afraid there's no chance of a reward for you, Nadya," she said lightly.
"Rewards are not for such as I," explained the chambermaid conscientiously. "We must merely do our duty. The lucky one is the prisoner who can bring in many other prisoners. He is given his liberty and money for as long as he can earn it."
As Anna listened, she felt that she could stay indoors no longer. Sleep-starved and nerve-drilled—she was degenerating to that state of animal suspicion when four walls represent a trap. There were too many doors in the hotel—and each door had its key-hole.
It was a relief to remember that she had promised to play draughts with the young clerk. His sane and cheerful outlook should cure her depression—unless he, too, were a spy.
The chambermaid watched her as she snatched up her beret.
"Here is your weekly note," she said, laying a paper down on the chest. "Please pay at the bureau as you go out."
For a minute Anna played with the idea of using the ear-marked amount for her telephone call.
"Would they give me credit here?" she asked.
"Assuredly not," gloomed Nadya. "You are unlucky. You have no work, no friend, no lover. They accepted you because Otto could guarantee payment. When you cannot pay, they will put you out in the street."
In her present state of mind, Anna had not the courage to take a gambler's chance. Although the act of paying her bill restored her prestige, she could not free her mind from the delusion that the porter watched her leave the hotel, and that every one who walked behind her was following her.
When she passed the prison the tidal river was at ebb, revealing spits of rock and mud at the roots of the walls, besides the crust of sediment on the stones which marked high-water.
"Olga's inside," she thought. "It's really true."
Until that morning she could not believe that there were actually prisoners within the fortress. She tried to tell herself that Olga was probably having the time of her life. The woman's morbid mind would soar and find release in the naming thrill of experience. She would be her own spectator and biographer—studying each reaction and marking each change of mood.
The disturbing factor was the possibility that Olga might consider it selfish to keep such a good thing to herself. She had no conception of loyalty, and disliked Anna acutely, because of Otto.
Anna shuddered as she looked down on the turgid brown water—still curling backwards to the sea—and then hurried on towards the café. Now that she was outside, it seemed of vital importance to get out of the semi-twilight, where shadows lurked round each corner, ready to pounce.
Although it was early, the café was gleaming with naked electric bulbs. Their glare was slightly obscured by the smoke-haze, but the citrine light beating down on the patrons exaggerated sharp facial angles and made eye-sockets appear black and hollowed.
To Anna's disappointment, the young clerk was not there. She bought some tea and carried the glass over to the table where they sat yesterday. When she had set the draughts-board in readiness for their game, she began to smoke while she waited. No one spoke to her as the time crawled away. Although the stubs of cigarettes on the floor indicated the length of her solitary session, the youth did not appear.
Presently she began to wonder whether his absence had not a sinister significance.
"Perhaps he's heard something about me," she thought. "Something that may happen—and he does not want to be mixed up with me."
She knew that she was wilfully thrusting herself into a hell that does not exist save in tortured imagination, where men and women go to meet those evils they might never be fated to endure. But it was impossible to regain her calm while the nerves kept twitching in her temples and her heart hammered an uneven tattoo.
"I wonder if I really am in danger," she thought uneasily. "That queer shop-walker, who believed in Fate, told me that it was for just such a moment that I took that futile cashier's job."
After having forgotten it for so long, she found herself frequently thinking of the shop, ever since it had suddenly rolled back into her memory at the café. She could see it distinctly as she recalled each familiar feature—the dust-filmed counter—the perilous stacks of shiny straw hats—the compound odour of linoleum and unbleached calico.
But none of the faces of her fellow-workers were clear, and this fact destroyed any chance of fulfilment of the prophecy.
"He told me I had to meet some one there," she reminded herself. "But I should not recognise a single person again, and they certainly would not know me now. I've altered so completely in appearance...It's strange to think that it is all going on, while I'm sitting here."
Anna was wrong in her conclusion. The shop that she had known had vanished years ago. Its shabby appearance and cheap trade had misled her as to its actual prosperity. Even while she was on its pay-roll, it had been steadily eating up the rest of its neighbours, although its progress was marked merely by another hole of communication knocked in the wall, and a drift of extra dust.
Soon after she deserted her desk, this old shop came to an end. An army of masons and decorators—hidden behind hoardings—scooped out its honeycomb of rooms, while posters announced "Business as Usual." A great staircase curved around the central vault—lit by an enormous dome. Lifts were installed. The assistants waved their hair and wore new frocks. And the army of rodents sorrowfully departed from the inhospitable glass-and-metal counters to seek brighter-starred campaigns.
Perhaps the shabby shop-walker joined them in their passing, for he, too, faded from the scene. He was so indefinite that no one seemed to remember when he was replaced by a stately gentleman in an impressive frock-coat. Then the hoardings were removed and the new palace of commerce was advertised to the world in a glaring electric sign—"Jenkin Jones & Co."
The first shop was now merely a humble beginning in the career of that great tradesman, Sir Jenkin Jones...In sympathetic fancy, it might be seen—a dark cramped Victorian shade—slipping back into the mist of the past, until it foregathered with kindred cronies—crazy timbered shops and houses—the ghosts of the demolished buildings of Old London.
Anna crushed out the stub of another cigarette.
"'In your hour of peril, the shop will speak,'" she quoted bitterly. "Only—it's impossible."
HAD she known it Anna could have spared herself the humiliation of her appeal to Lady Evans. Even while she endured the torment of suspense at the café, her draft was waiting for her at the post office.
It was there through the indirect intervention of Mr. Horncastle—the lawyer of whose financial policy she had so low an opinion. The machinery was put in motion early that morning, when his clerk rang up Colonel Brown's private office to inquire whether his niece, Miss Anna Stephanovitch, was still in Russia.
When Miss Parmiter repeated the message, the colonel frowned.
"Ask Horncastle to come on the line," he requested.
He drummed the desk with his fingers until Miss Parmiter handed him the receiver.
"I understand, Horncastle," he said, "that you wish to know if my niece is still in Russia."
Conscious of the annoyance in the colonel's voice, the lawyer explained that it was merely a routine question about an address.
"There was no need for your secretary to trouble you with it," he said.
"My secretary is aware of her duties and competent to deal with inquiries," snapped the colonel, "I wished to speak to you personally. In future, will you kindly instruct your staff that my niece's name is Miss Ann Brown."
"I am naturally aware of the fact," the lawyer told him. "But it stands to reason that business correspondence must be addressed to your niece in the name by which she is known, and which she always uses herself. Otherwise there would be the risk of delay and confusion."
"Quite...My secretary will give you the details you require."
"Thanks. I will instruct my clerk to receive them."
Both gentlemen were annoyed when they rang off. The colonel continued to ventilate his grievance by repeating the conversation to Miss Parmiter, who became thoughtful.
"I hope there has been no difficulty about the draft we sent to Russia," she remarked.
"I knew there would be more trouble," exploded the colonel. "Between ourselves, my brilliant niece has always been a pain in the neck to her poor mother. You'd better cable another fifty to 'Anna Stephanovitch' this time. Advise her of arrival."
Miss Parmiter began to dial, and the money went speeding on its way...Instead of blundering towards the heart of the maze, in reality, Anna was now close to the open door.
The only question was whether she would reach it—in time.
Meanwhile she sat in the café, wasting valuable minutes when she might have been standing in the queue to buy her railway ticket. The heated atmosphere grew more torrid, the reek of makhorka tobacco stronger. There were seconds when she felt on the verge of faintness, so that the electric glare was dimmed as though suddenly shaded, and the people around her faded to blurs.
During one of these attacks, a hand gripped her shoulder.
She suppressed a scream, while her heart began to gallop.
"It's come," she told herself.
Forcing herself to make the effort, she turned and looked up into the flushed face of a blowsy girl who stood behind her, still using her as a means of support.
"Sorry, Comrade," she laughed. "These swine push so. I nearly fell."
Anna smiled faintly. In spite of her relief, she was horrified by this revelation of moral collapse.
"I can't stay here, like Olga, waiting for it," she told herself, as she staggered to her feet.
At first, it was a relief to get outside, although the cold took away her breath and made her knees shake. Before long, however, she realised that she had taken her terror with her. Inside the café, it was at close quarters, to spring, but out in the square, there was a wider area in which to stalk her.
It began to encircle her again as footsteps rang out on the pavement behind her. Instead of turning to see who was following her, she foolishly increased her pace. Then, suddenly, her self-control crashed and she began to run.
When at last she halted—out of breath and ashamed—she realised that she was in a quiet neighbourhood. On either side rose tall blocks of modern buildings—offices and apartment-flats. Their dark fronts were symmetrically sliced by lighted windows, not yet shuttered for the night. Many of the basements were also unscreened, so that Anna was able to peer down at them through the area railings.
A few were mephitic offices, where pallid youths added up columns of figures and girls pounded typewriters, in a greenish glare; but the majority of them were underground dives for amusement or recreation. In these, the air was so thick with smoke that it lent the illusion of human beings sealed within tanks of dock water.
Anna felt as though she had surprised the relaxation of some strange subterranean race. The people lounged, drank, smoked and played chess. Hands gesticulated to stress the flow of conversation. Occasionally a couple swayed sluggishly to the whine of a gramophone.
In other circumstances, she would have been interested by the spectacle, but her thoughts had veered off in another direction. She walked on mechanically and then stood staring down into an unlighted area.
"Anything is better than this suspense. If I went to Granovsky's store, I might be able to find out if my name was really on that envelope."
But the thought of re-threading that crepuscular coil of passages made her shudder. As she hesitated, a light was switched on in the dive below, revealing a couple who were snatching a brief interlude of privacy. Their heads were close together, as though they spoke in whispers, and there was a tenseness in their pose, suggestive of haste.
The next second, the intruder—whoever it was—turned off the light again, showing that the interruption was accidental.
Anna gasped as she gripped the railings. The picture had flashed on and off so quickly that she could not check the evidence of her eyes. She was left with a sense of urgent secrecy in this meeting in the darkness. She felt that it must be prearranged and timed to a split-second. One person appeared to be an anonymous woman of the town, but there was something familiar about the man's figure, in spite of his low-drawn hat.
"Conrad Stern," she whispered.
On cooler reflection, she realised that this was impossible. Not only had he left the district, but he was the last person to indulge in a shady intrigue.
"If I can't trust him, there's nothing left," she thought.
The sound of distant footsteps made her start, and reminded her that she was alone in a hostile twilight. She began to run—no longer in blind panic, but towards the definite goal of Granovsky's store.
After she had squeezed through the guardian posts, she rushed unwarily into the gloom, slipping dangerously over the rough cobbles, slimed with frozen moisture. At first, she was only vaguely conscious of being enclosed within ancient wooden walls, and of the smell of iced damp-mould; but presently, she realised that she was making swimming movements with her arms, as though she were forcing her way through a membrane of darkness.
For some unknown reason, these gestures seemed to help her progress, even while she was furious with her pantomime.
"You fool—you clown," she stormed.
In spite of her abuse, she began to grow sorry for herself, as the walls narrowed and the light failed further, in proof that she was penetrating still deeper behind "the backs." For the first time in months, she thought of her mother, who even then was presumably introducing English comforts into the Argentine.
"Mother would have brought a torch," she reflected. "She was always prepared."
In London, it was easy to feel superior to her parent, on the score of superior intellect and education; but under stress of emotion, she began to reverse her judgment.
"Mother knew that the machine must be oiled. She understands life."
The wholesome scourge of self-scorn drove her through the pitch darkness of the right-of-way house and carried her out into the little square.
Her mood changed at the sight of it—twinkling with tiny lights and ringed with picturesque old buildings. There was still faint visibility, while three pale phantom moons hung apparently in the sky—reflections of distant street-lighting in a warehouse window.
Old Granovsky met her on the threshold of his store. It was built of rough-hewn logs and its lintels were carved with elaborate fretwork scrolls. An ikon glowed in one corner, while the air smelt not unpleasantly of warm linseed oil.
"Do you remember me?" asked Anna.
He beamed and nodded recognition, but his soft eyes grew wary at her next question.
"Did you find any roubles in the bureau?"
To expect him to make the admission was to ask too much of human nature. As his face grew blank with innocence, Anna hastened to reassure him.
"I'm not interested in any money, you remember. I wanted a—a love-letter. Have you got the envelope?"
He turned towards a chest on which old papers were strewn—layers deep. At the sight Anna's hopes revived. She realised that here was a human jackdaw who would not destroy a sound envelope. With an uncanny sense of direction, his fingers dug through the litter to the correct day's deposit, and he hooked up a strong envelope with the address printed on the flap.
"There is some writing on it," he said, peering at it through big clumsy spectacles. "I have not noticed it before. It says, 'Anna Stephanovitch,' and here is the amount."
When he read out the figure, he grew hot with righteous indignation.
"There were not nearly so many roubles in the envelope...Oh, the dirty thieves to rob this poor Anna Stephanovitch."
Although he did not understand the joke, he joined in Anna's laughter.
"You are my grandfather," she told him. "Will you burn this at once?"
He winked as he opened the door of the stove and watched her benevolently, while she poked the paper inside. When it was charred to tinder, she spoke to him again.
"There was no money in the envelope."
"No," he agreed. "So it follows there was no envelope either."
They shook hands and parted the best of friends.
The return journey had to be made in darkness. The mysterious sense of direction, which had guided her under the impulse of fear, now deserted her. But although at times she was forced to grope around the sides of a yard before she found an outlet, it was not actually long before she squeezed through the posts at the alley's end.
When she reached the café, it seemed transformed to a warm and cheerful haven of recreation. As she glanced around her, she caught a smile of welcome and became aware of the young clerk, seated before the draughtboard.
"I've been waiting for you, Comrade," he said. "I've chosen white." He pushed forward a draught. "My first step to victory."
"Don't be too sure," laughed Anna. "I shall play better to-day. My mind is at ease."
After a few moves, she could not resist a question.
"Any news of Olga?"
"Of course not." He spat on the floor. "She ended yesterday."
As Anna shuddered, he pulled a grimace.
"We shall not finish our game after all, Comrade," he said. "Here is this pesty fellow looking for you again."
"What fellow?" asked Anna quickly.
"Some official who has been here before, asking for Anna Stephanovitch...There he is."
As he pointed, Anna was rent by an elemental urge to strike him on his smiling mouth.
"It's a trap," she thought wildly. "He was told to keep me here. I'm going to be arrested."
The shock had wiped out the reassurance of the burned envelope. As her thoughts flew to Olga, she felt certain that she was going to be a victim of false evidence. Glancing towards the door, she received a blurred impression of a bulky man, wearing grey breeches and a sheepskin coat—thrown open to reveal a gleam of a brass badge.
People were looking at him and then faces were turned towards her. Fingers pointed her out to him. The whole company was ringed together in a mass-movement to arrest an enemy of the Soviet.
Unable to bear the strain of watching his steady advance, she closed her eyes and gripped the edge of the table. Then a heavy hand fell upon her shoulder.
This time she did not scream. She had been prepared by the dress rehearsal of the drama, when a blowsy girl gripped her arm.
"Anna Stephanovitch," said a gruff voice, "Come with me."
"Why?" she asked weakly.
"You are wanted."
Too dazed to protest, she got up from the table. Directly she was on her feet, she was surprised by her own calm. Just as she had remained mentally aloof when she derided her ridiculous swimming gestures, so she was conscious of herself as she walked with a steady step through the café.
They crossed the square in silence, while her brain grew yet more numbed. The sense of being in a dream deepened as they passed under the pedestal of the statue and reached the post office. With fatalistic courage, as though part of her were already dead, she turned towards the narrow street which led to the prison.
To her surprise, the man took her arm and swung her round.
"No," he said. "Up the steps. Hurry, Comrade. The post-mistress has sent me twice already to the café to look for you."
Even as he pushed open the door, the dumpy official met them. Her sallow face was beaming with pleasure, and she waved a form in her chilblained fingers.
"Good news, Comrade," she cried. "The draft is come for Anna Stephanovitch."
ANNA went to sleep that night with her railway ticket to London under her pillow. When she awoke, early next morning, she thought that the events of yesterday must be a dream, until she drew it out and looked at it.
Too excited to lie in bed, she got up and began to dress. By the time the chambermaid brought in her coffee, she had packed her suitcase and was ready for her journey at noon.
"Look at it," she cried joyously, holding out her ticket.
The chambermaid examined it and then shook her head.
"Are you carrying it in your bag?" she asked.
"Then you will lose it. Some one will smack your hand and make you drop it. Then they will snatch it and run away...Or perhaps you will lay it down, just for a minute, and forget it...You are always forgetting your things."
"Not this bag...Well, Nadya, I am going out for a last walk round the town. I will come back to say 'Good-bye.'"
"It will not be 'Good-bye' I am sure you will not go to-day."
By the time the chambermaid left the room, she had infected Anna with her own doubts as to the safety of the precious ticket. After experimenting with the top of her stocking, she sewed two handkerchiefs together to form a rough bag—enclosed the ticket—and pinned it inside her blouse.
"Sheer melodrama," she jeered. "But I can't lose it now."
With a feeling of security, she looked through the double windows. The sky was dark as an over-ripe fig with snow-clouds and the old stunted trees were blown forward by the wind until they rapped the wall with knobby knuckles.
They strained to touch certain dark stains upon the stones.
"Obviously damp," decided Anna.
Reminded of her first sight of the People's Prosecutor, as she strode across the road, she charitably reversed another opinion.
"Poor thing. She ought to be in a mental hospital."
When she went out, she could feel the rustle of her ticket, whenever she touched her chest. The streets were deserted—the shops poorly stocked; but otherwise, the place had lost its sinister quality and was much like any small provincial town.
"Glad I'm not stuck here for the winter," she thought as she noticed a girl who was staring listlessly from the window of a tall lean house.
Anna felt instinctively that the girl was dull. She was waiting for something to happen—but she knew that nothing could happen here.
Although Anna revisited all the spots she had frequented during her enchanted summer, she made no sentimental journey. She went because she had an hour to kill, and also for the joy of seeing them for the last time.
By making a circuit, she managed to avoid passing the prison. In doing so, she had to cross the street where she had lingered on the preceding evening. The blocks of flats looked ultra-respectable and dreary. Mats were being shaken—doorsteps yellowed. An occasional light glimmered in an underground office, but the dives were hidden behind discreet reed curtains or dingy blinds.
As she stared down the area where she believed she had surprised Conrad Stern, she ridiculed her suspicion.
"I merely got into a spin," she reflected.
Presently she reached the square where, according to precedent, she called first at the post office. There was no mail for her, but she was able to say 'Good-bye' to the post-mistress and also to compare her watch with the clock.
She had a nervous obsession about the time. When she was sipping a glass of weak lemon-flavoured tea in the café, she kept glancing at her wrist every few minutes. Even although her watch synchronised with the café clock, she resolved to take no risk of its running down. She unstrapped and rewound it and then touched her blouse once more to be sure that her ticket was still there.
She had decided to be at the station at least an hour before the train was due to start, which entailed an early departure from the hotel. The period of waiting seemed endless, but presently the hands of her watch crawled to the minute when she must leave.
"For the last time," she reminded herself, as she took a farewell glance around the smoky café. There was a poignant memory connected with the table in the window that gave her a sharp pang of regret. Conrad Stern had gone out of her life for ever. Whatever the strength of her obsession, while he remained in Russia, it would be hopeless to expect him to materialise in a London dive.
"Hammersmith," she thought sceptically. "Liar...Good-bye, Mystery."
She shook him from her mind as she hurried back to the hotel. In front of her stretched a clear path home. In her eagerness to reach it, she was running up the steps of her lodging, when the porter spoke to her.
"There's a man waiting to see you."
Instantly her thoughts flew to Conrad Stern.
"Who?" she asked eagerly.
"I don't know."
"Well—where is he?"
"Upstairs in your room."
The light died from her eyes as she remembered that Conrad Stern believed her to be in England. Even if she had actually seen him in the dive, he would not call at her hotel in the expectation of finding her there.
"Why did you send him up there?" she asked sharply.
"He wouldn't wait down here," explained the porter. "He said he mustn't miss seeing you as it was important. Then he asked me if you would come in and go out again, without coming through this door, and I said, 'Yes, sometimes she goes up the side-stairs.' I told him you were just going away and he said, 'Good, lead me to her suitcase.'"
As she listened, Anna's knees began to weaken, in proof that her nerves still had mastery over her.
"Nadya said I should not go to-day," she reminded herself.
The woman extracted dark pleasure whenever her prophecies of disaster came true. It was possible that she had heard the whisper which spreads by night, and wished to enhance her prestige by foretelling an eleventh-hour arrest.
For a minute Anna fought the temptation to rush to the station without her luggage. Then she remembered that, if she were wanted by the Ogpu, she would be stopped, either in the train or at the frontier.
"It's nothing," she told herself as she mounted the steep steps and nerved herself to fling open her bedroom door.
At the sound, her visitor swung round from the window and hurried to meet her. He was muffled in a big belted travelling coat, which made him appear stouter than he actually was. His eyes were kind and humorous, but otherwise his features were insignificant, while his face was typical of any hard-boiled business man.
"Clifford," she cried as he gripped both her hands in welcome. "What are you doing here?"
"Rather too early in the day for bedroom farce," he agreed. "Anna, you are the answer to a distracted husband's prayer. I've parked Gloria & Co. at the hotel and I'm taking you over to them at once."
"But I'm catching the noon train back to England," she protested. "My ticket's dated for to-day. Look."
Lines of amusement sprayed around his eyes as he watched her grope in her blouse.
"I've always prayed to see that done before I die," he said. "Is it your marriage lines? Give it me. I'll take charge of it and see it's put in order...You can't let me down, Anna. I've got to make final arrangements for an agency we're establishing here, and I can't attend to business with my family hanging round my neck. The baby's got sense, but Gloria's shot to little bits."
"I thought you had an English nurse."
"Yes, we had one sent out from London. We picked the plainest photograph, but she got married all the same. Gloria wouldn't take a native back, so she's been carrying on alone. And how." He stopped to groan. "My need is desperate, Anna. Even if we were not old friends, I'd claim your help, just because we are English and in a hole...After that I'm going, to quote Kipling, to clinch the deal."
Anna looked out of the window at the line of gale-tormented trees. Tap, rap, knock, swish back; then forward again—s-swish, tap, rap, knock. Straining to reach those stains on the walls, where "they placed the Guards and shot them down."
She told herself that she liked the Jameses, but Gloria was only a schoolfellow and not even a personal friend. Then she looked at her watch and stooped to pick up her suitcase.
"I can't stop in this town any longer," she told Clifford James. "It's real melodrama, this time. I'm in danger of being arrested."
It was a relief to hear his laughter after she had given him a scrappy version of her adventures.
"I never heard such thin stuff," he declared. "They've not a thing on you. The fact is you've been too much alone and you've moped. I'm sorry about your friend, Anna. That bit is tough. Poor chap...But you're all right now. You will be travelling back with us and I know all the ropes."
In spite of the reassurance, Anna still wanted to go—while there was yet time.
"How long are you staying here?" she asked.
"Exactly twenty-four hours. I really need your moral support for the journey."
As she hesitated, Anna remembered her interview with Lady Evans.
"I'm worse than she was," she thought. "I'm holding out on friends. Besides, it's only for another day."
Suddenly making the decision, she relaxed her grip of the suitcase.
"I'll come," she said. "But I want to say 'Good-bye' to the chambermaid first."
Anna met Nadya in the passage where she was waiting for her tip.
"I'm leaving the hotel," she explained. "But I'm not going back to England until to-morrow."
In the shadow, the woman's eyes sparkled like black jet.
"I knew it," she said. "I am always right...But we will not say 'Good-bye,' for I am sure also that you will not go to-morrow."
ANNA felt transported to another world when she entered Gloria's bedroom at the Hotel Dom. Although Mrs. James had taken possession of it for so short a time, she had already scrawled her signature across it. The clutter of toilet requisites, the embroidered silk bed-cover and cushions, the spread of expensive clothes, the novels and magazines—all of these expressed her standard of the essential.
Tall and slim, in oyster satin pyjamas—she came forward eagerly to welcome Anna. The wave of her honey-gold hair was faultless as though she had not passed a night in the train, but under her eyes were violet stains of fatigue.
"I've got her," announced Clifford triumphantly, rather as though Anna were just another purchase commissioned by his wife.
"Swell work," approved Gloria. "It's marvellous to see you, darling...You look terrible."
To her surprise, Anna suddenly became clothes-conscious.
"I've mixed exclusively with the Komsomol," she explained. "As they were workers, naturally I dressed like them."
"What work did you do?"
"I didn't come out to work."
"Of course not. I'd forgotten. Some one wrote to me that you'd gone all Russian with a bearded ex-prince. Are you still living with him?"
"I got your lip-stick," interrupted Clifford. "I had to chase round a bit to get the right make. Just check up on it, please."
Anna glanced at him gratefully as Gloria's attention was distracted to the small parcel.
"Wrong shade," she said. "I said 'Vif.' Darling, sometimes I wonder how you manage to hold down your job with such a memory...Has the water run clean yet? You might see and send the men away."
As her husband went into the bathroom, Gloria explained the situation.
"Imagine it. The bath is a swell marble affair, but we discovered that the pipes were choked from disuse. They had the bright idea of sending up cans of hot water. Cliff had to get busy about plumbers before he could stop to shave."
"But you're only here for a night, aren't you?" inquired Anna suspiciously.
"I know. But we're still on our journey home. If we didn't insist on getting a proper bathroom at every stop, we'd soon be tramps."
"Besides that, we're putting the bath all ship-shape and Bristol-fashion for the next feller," remarked Clifford, as he strolled back from the bathroom. "I always like to leave a place better than I find it. My idea of civilisation."
He had put on a dressing-gown and brushed his hair until it shone.
"The water's clean now and running boiling-hot," he said to his wife. "Shall I try it out first?"
"Yes. Be lavish with the salts, to scent the place for me. I'll talk to Anna."
"Good. Don't forget to show her exhibit A."
"The baby?" Anna looked around the bedroom as Cliff went back to the bathroom. "Where is it?"
"She is in the dressing-room, asleep," corrected Gloria. "The hotel has produced a young maid as nurse-for-a-day."
"Did Cliff manage that too?"
"Of course. I can't speak Russian. And I shan't speak English either once I've put this pack on, or I'll crack."
Anna watched Gloria as she carefully mixed a face-pack.
"I couldn't appear in the restaurant with a tired skin," she declared. "I should feel too conspicuous. But before I put it on, come and see my baby."
When they entered the adjoining room, Anna's first reaction was sympathy for the husband who had to arrange for the transport of luggage. The baby had her own cot and bath, besides a number of luxury possessions. Although she was asleep, the little Russian girl continued to croon a lullaby very softly, while she reverentially ironed out white silk rompers.
"Isn't she enchanting?" whispered Gloria, bending over the cot. "She's bound to be a film star. Look at her eyebrows. They're exactly like Dietrich's."
Anna tried hard to find them, while she agreed untruthfully. As far as she could judge, the baby, who was small, pale and sandy, resembled her insignificant father.
"I suppose she is like you?" she asked tactfully.
"Are you crazy? She's the image of Cliff. My beautiful. We mustn't talk in here, or we might wake her up."
After they had crept from the nursery, Anna sat and smoked while Gloria covered her face with a thick white paste. She could hear the splash of water and Clifford lowing tunelessly in his bath. A faint odour of roses stole on the warm air. Once again the Jameses had worked their distinctive miracle and changed a bizarre Russian setting to the luxurious bedroom of any civilised country.
It was difficult to realise that she had been racked with suspense and fear—impossible to believe that a muddy tidal river was sucking the stones of a prison. Otto, Olga—both had slipped out of her life.
Freed from strain, she began to grow critical and slightly rebellious. It had been a sacrifice to put off her journey and she was beginning to wonder whether it were justified. Gloria was spoilt and spoon-fed. So far as Anna could judge, she was in need of no moral support, but merely in search of a nursemaid.
Presently Gloria glanced at her travelling-clock and began to sponge the disfiguring mixture from her face.
"I told Cliff to blaze out the best toilet salon," she said. "I must get my hair done after lunch."
"What's wrong with it?" asked Anna.
"Nothing. I want to try out some different style. I'm tired of looking like myself."
"Your standard is really marvellous."
Without warning, Gloria suddenly flared up.
"That's a sneer, isn't it?" she said. "You've always played me low. Do you read Kipling?"
"Well, I do. My baby was born in India. That means something...He wrote a poem about the little everyday jobs that keep one sane."
Applying foundation-cream to her face, Gloria began to quote.
"'Heart may fail and Strength outwear and Purpose turn to
But the everyday affair of toilet, meals and clothing,
Builds a bulwark 'twixt despair and the edge of nothing.'"
"How does that concern you?" asked Anna. "All this"—she waved her cigarette vaguely—"doesn't suggest 'the edge of nothing.'"
"You're judging by appearances." Gloria's voice was thick with passion. "You can't understand. It's only by hanging on to every trifle—like face-packs and bath-salts—that I keep going at all. You can't imagine what it is to be bound up entirely in a man and a child. They're my life....I lie awake wondering what I should do if anything happened to Cliff. I've grown to hang on to him for everything. He's taken charge of me—body and soul. And there are so many dangers. A car accident—a deadly germ—tainted milk for baby...You can't think how I envy you."
"Why?" asked Anna incredulously.
"Because you've only yourself. One can face anything for oneself."
With a change of mood, Gloria began to laugh as she worked rouge into the foundation cream.
"You're beginning to see what Cliff has let you in for. I'm so edgy that he's afraid I shall biff some Soviet citizen and get into a spot of trouble. I've had all sorts of rows with people in trains about windows and corner seats. I've had to fight for baby's interests...And already I've had one brush in this hotel."
"What was that?" asked Anna casually.
"A great blonde beast of a woman was in the vestibule when we arrived. She glared at my baby as if she had no right to be in an hotel. But I got even with her. She was waiting for the lift and I nipped in before her, with baby. Of course, I can't understand their language, but she gave me a real dirty look."
At that moment, Anna was glad of the moral support of Cliff's voice from the bathroom.
"Gloria," she said earnestly, "please don't do anything to annoy that woman in future. She might find some way of getting even. She's the People's Prosecutor."
THAT afternoon seemed endless to Anna as she rested on her bed and stared up at the white snow-reflection on her ceiling. Clifford had taken charge of the situation before going out to keep his business appointments. He packed off his wife to the toilet salon, in one of the hotel cars, and advised Anna to lie down.
"To-morrow night you'll be banging about in the train," he said.
In spite of her need of sleep, she could not compose her mind. Besides the flatness of anti-climax, she was feeling rebellious because this postponement had cheated her out of the thrill of escape. Once again she was back among the flesh-pots after the rawness of reality.
As she tossed restlessly, her feelings rather resembled those of some stray animal with a wild streak in its nature, which—after it has been rescued from the street—pines after the old hunger and freedom. She longed to be involved in a wild and dangerous adventure with Conrad Stern. Faced with the numbness of existence, she welcomed any emotion—horror, suspense, fear—that could galvanise dead tissue to life.
Presently she decided to get up and wait in the lounge until dinner. Rather to her disappointment, she found that Clifford was there already. Although apparently stranded amid the desert of tarnished magnificence, he was a composed dapper figure in his dinner-jacket, as he sipped an apéritif and appraised the painted goddesses on the walls.
"Gloria back?" she asked.
"Dressing for dinner. She's got a new make-up and looks glorious. You're just in time for a drink. I'm buying one for Lady Evans and an amazing lady in trousers. I like to collect people and exchange hats or opinions, as the case might be."
"For one night only?"
"My dear, my life is made up of these odd nights. I'm always on the move and I don't like to feel lonely."
As he spoke, he seemed less a brisk little business magnet than a small, tired man. The next second, however, his sense of humour began to function again.
"I'm looking forward to a good scrap with Lady Evans," he said. "She's a devil-on-wheels, but she's life-size. I respect her for what she gets done."
He broke off as Lady Evans—in her iron-grey suit—came out of her office. She glanced at her watch and then bore down upon them with the punctuality and importance of an ocean liner.
"You?" she said as she recognised Anna. "Still here?"
When Anna explained the situation briefly, she snorted.
"If you've got mixed up in any anti-Soviet propaganda, I'll warn you there's a spy in this hotel."
"That's all right," remarked Clifford serenely. "I'm organising Anna. Just put me wise to this Madame Lötsch so that I don't drop any bricks. Jailbird, isn't she?"
"Yes. I don't like her. Disloyal. The sort who plays bridge only to win. She says she's a dying woman. Some incurable complaint. She was imprisoned with her husband. He received what is called an administrative sentence, but the governor released her as her number is up."
"You mean Markovitch?" twinkled Clifford. "I'm told that is an old dodge of his when the prison's full. He knows they can't leave the district because they'd be arrested at the frontier."
"You seem to have collected some local information in a very short time. Are you the spy?"
"I keep my eyes and ears open. Here comes the booze. Let's see if the barman understood my Russian."
Lady Evans sipped and gave a nod of appreciation.
"First decent gin I've tasted here. You seem to get things done. I'm told you've got the taps in your bath to run."
"With water only," said Clifford modestly. "Not with beer. Here's our guest."
Directly Anna saw Madame Lötsch she was conscious of repulsion. The woman seemed to her not so much dying, as corrupting. The plaster of cosmetics on her hollow face was dirty, her lashes were matted, her smile a leer. One felt instinctively that she always played for her own hand and was devoid of consideration or compassion for others.
She wore black velveteen trousers and tunic, both edged with monkey fur. In one shrivelled hand she flourished a long scarlet cigarette-holder. When Lady Evans introduced her, Anna noticed that she looked at no one directly, although she expressed exaggerated pleasure at the meeting.
"I adore all the English," she said. "I envy you too. You are all on velvet. You collect all the good things. My brother and his wife are in England. In Heerford."
It took Anna a little time to recognise the county from her pronunciation. Hereford. A slow river, red cows in sleepy green fields, cathedral chimes, afternoon tea. A very long distance away...And then, with a feeling of surprise, she realised that Clifford had infused this incredible background—which resembled the stage-setting of a grand opera travelling company—with the casual gossiping atmosphere of any English country club.
His face was lit with shrewd interest and his eyes puckered with the faintly malicious amusement which is typical of a man of the world with an insatiable interest in humanity.
"They call him Mrs. Gloria's husband," she reflected, "but he must have a strong personality. He's strung us all together."
In her turn, she began to listen, when Lady Evans mentioned the People's Prosecutor.
"I saw her this morning," said Cliff. "Fine bouncing lass. If I get a chance I want to buy her a drink."
"You'd drink with the common hangman?" asked Lady Evans sharply.
"Most uncommon, my dear lady. I've never met one yet. I'd like a chat with one...Interesting lot of people here. There's a spy too."
"You've probably met him already," said Madame Lötsch.
"Or her." Cliff's eyes smiled. "I believe the genus is common gender."
"It might even be a child," went on Madame Lötsch. "Russian children play chess and commit suicide, so all is possible to them. What a nation! I would not dare say this, except that I am with the English, who are always to be trusted. I, myself, am French."
"I can't tell the difference," said Lady Evans bluntly. "But all children are the same. I organise them. So I know."
Madame Lötsch gave no sign of hearing the remark. The sharpened expression of her face showed that her attention was withdrawn and focused on another quarter. Her eyes slanted slightly and the cords of her neck were tense as she listened.
Some one was crashing through the revolving doors and evidently resenting them as an obstacle to progress. At the sound of an oath, Madame Lötsch skipped from the group and stood apart, turning her back to it with affected nonchalance. Although she had placed herself directly in the path of the heavy blonde woman who had just entered, she greeted her with affected surprise.
"Madame Hirsch. What pleasure."
The People's Prosecutor scowled at her contemptuously. Her face was red from the cold and her eyes were both stupid and infuriated. She reminded Anna of a savage animal which had rushed from a thicket and was ready to charge, while still unaware of its surroundings.
"Not dead yet?" she asked brutally. "I hear you are dying on your feet."
Then—as though she actually scented the cocktail-drinkers—she threw up her head and sniffed.
"This place stinks," she said.
"Oh, those are only guests," said Madame Lötsch quickly, disowning acquaintance with the group. "They go to-morrow."
"She's a pet," said Clifford James gleefully as he gazed after the retreating figure. "But her breeches are abominable. Wonder if she'd like the address of my tailor?"
Madame Lötsch returned to the party with an ingratiating smile and an empty glass. Clifford James ignored the combination, as he spoke to her.
"I gather the blonde lady has no use for the English."
Madame Lötsch made a bid to restore her popularity by some gossip.
"She was once in an English prison," she explained. "She ill-treated her child, so that it died. Then while she was still in prison, she had another child. This one was born dead, so it saved her the trouble of killing it...She nearly died and she went off her head; so they gave her a doll to quiet her, for they thought she might be missing the child, although they knew quite well what she would do to it. Of course, it was a very nice infirmary, because it was an English prison, and every one was kind to her—but especially one nurse with red hair. But when she came to her senses she attacked this nurse and accused her of killing her child and of cheating her with a doll. Then she was discharged and came back to Russia."
"So that's why," remarked Anna reflectively. "Some one told me she dislikes babies, the English and red-haired women. It struck me, at the time, as such a queer assortment of hates."
"Specialised," agreed Lady Evans. "Luckily there's no one here who fills the bill."
Suddenly Clifford James began to laugh. It seemed to Anna that his mirth was more hysteria than amusement, for he yelped and whooped until tears were forced through his lids.
"What's the joke?" asked Lady Evans impatiently.
"You'll find out," he spluttered. "Wait for the balloon to go up, that's all."
After a while, he pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes.
"Definitely amusing," he muttered. "Or—is it?"
No one heeded him, for every one was looking at Gloria James who had just entered. To be more exact, she made an entrance. Tall, ultra slim and perfectly made-up—she was a magnet that drew all eyes.
The men stared at her face and figure, while the women appraised her black dinner-gown and silver coat which were suitable for a smart restaurant.
Anna recognised her with a shock of surprise, because she appeared unfamiliar. For a second, she attributed the change to her evening-dress; but, as she looked again, she realised that her beauty was heightened by more vivid colouring.
Instead of being pale gold—her hair was now red.
TRIUMPHANTLY sure of her reception, Gloria joined the group.
"My wife," said Clifford proudly, as he handed her a cocktail. "I need not explain now that I am generally known as 'Mrs. James's husband.'"
"And you need not explain why every one must say that your taste is perfect," gushed Madame Lötsch.
Her admiration was mainly homage to a successful toilette, but Gloria sucked in her flattery with transparent pleasure.
"Clifford," she commanded, "another cocktail for madame. Lady Evans too. Isn't it swell all of us meeting like this? We might be in England."
Anna stood aloof, watching the group with critical eyes. Embittered by emotional frustration, the scene depressed her by its projection of an uninviting future.
"Why have you dyed your hair?" she asked bluntly at her first opportunity.
"Because I wanted a change," explained Gloria lightly. "I get tired of being me. Whenever I'm bored, I always go a different colour."
"I've grown used to finding a strange woman in my bedroom," put in Clifford. "But my hopes are always dashed when the beautiful unknown sticks me up for a cheque. I know then that I still have the same wife."
"Really, Cliff, any one might think I ask you for money. What a crazy idea."
"Why is it crazy?" asked Madame Lötsch. "Have you so much money already of your own?"
"Yes, I came into a packet on my wedding day. It's an inheritance by law. It was before witnesses and I've my marriage-lines to prove it. But seriously, people, there's nothing like a henna rinse as a cure for the blues."
"Time will change your hair for you without trouble or expense," proclaimed Lady Evans, patting her sleek brown wave. "I am sorry my family does not grow grey. White hair gives dignity."
In spite of her snub, she looked actually amiable as she finished her cocktail.
"A pleasant little English reunion," she said to Clifford. "How do you manage to get these things done?"
"I can use you on a committee."
"Sorry. No time. I have a wife and family."
Anna still remained obstinately unresponsive to the party spirit which was raising both voices and spirits. When she contrasted the conversation with the unlicensed fireworks of the Komsomol, she felt a flashback to her old rebellion.
"The eternal cheap English humour," she thought. "Hair, promiscuity, wives."
"Not amused?" asked Cliff with disconcerting swiftness.
"Of course. But I'm waiting for some one to stammer or pretend to be drunk before I laugh."
"Poor child, you are very young. Haven't you enough sympathy to recognise homesick people when you see them? We're getting a kick out of this...That reminds me, I've collected another English feller who'll be coming along. I met him in the bar just before you came down."
"Enchanting. What's his name?"
"It was your expression that reminded me of it. Stern."
"That's it. Do you know him?"
Clifford pretended not to notice that Anna had turned first scarlet and then white, as though from sudden shock. He ignored also the glow in her eyes and the vibrant note in her voice as she asked a question.
"Does he know I am here?"
"Should he know?"
"No. It will be a surprise."
That Anna's presence in the Hotel Dom was unexpected to Conrad Stern, was apparent to Clifford James, who watched with keen interest. When he appeared, he located first the cocktail-party and walked directly to his host; but as his monocle flashed over the group and picked up Anna, a change swept over his face.
"Anna," he exclaimed. "I thought you were in England. Why are you still in Russia?"
"No ticket," she explained. "I kept my money at the office and it was all confiscated...Aren't you thrilled to see me?"
"Intensely. When do you go?"
The spectator—Clifford James—was the only person to notice the almost imperceptible transition from tension to relief, in Stern's expression.
"Then we must make the most of the time," he said.
"I want you to meet my wife," interrupted Clifford.
As Anna watched the introduction, she realised, with a stab of envy, that Stern was conscious of Gloria as a beautiful woman. It made her regret the lack of competition. Instead of regarding the unsocialistic store of clothes in London as her shame, she mourned them as a lost opportunity.
Even as she was thinking of her favourite evening-gown, with which she could have slaughtered Gloria on a sartorial plane, Stern returned to her side.
"Where have you been all this time?" she asked eagerly.
Since the misunderstanding about Otto had been cleared up, she expected the customary ventilation of his affairs which was her test of comradeship. It was a keen disappointment when he sheltered behind the old evasive reply.
"Oh—here and there."
"And I suppose you did—this and that?"
"More or less."
"At last," crowed Clifford, "I am privileged to listen to the conversation of the intelligentsia. The idea seems to be to avoid low-brow topics and talk of nothing at all, in short sentences of three easy words."
"As a matter of fact, it was intelligent policy on my part," remarked Stern. "I have told Anna that I am a journalist. The fact I have to tell her, shows that my name is not too well known. When you have to play a weak hand, you would not expose it."
"Ah," cried Madame Lötsch, "so he has something to hide. Monsieur, I must ask you the question I pose to every one. In this hotel there is a spy. Are you that spy?"
She looked up at him, while her neck writhed, as though she were attempting to coil it from the support of her spinal column; but her eyes shifted before his steady gaze.
"Why?" he asked.
"Why not? It is a fine job. The best of everything in the hotel for nothing."
Although she had managed to insinuate an unpleasant element into the little party, Clifford James remained placidly amused.
"If I knew the person—sir or madam—I'd ask him to join us," he said. "Then, if we could rope in the lady high-executioner, we'd have a classy little party. Special friend of yours, isn't she, madame?"
Madame Lötsch's face was convulsed with sudden fury.
"Is this a joke, monsieur?" she asked. "I have to translate your language, so it may be I lose a shade of your meaning...But listen. The woman you would invite to drink with us, put a bullet into the heart of my husband. She did not miss—but they were not so merciful to me. I have the bullet in my entrails. Bad water, filthy food, confinement, gaol-fever—all these have given me a fatal growth. They have killed me—but I take longer to die."
As she finished she clutched her skinny throat, as though she were choking, and squinted rapidly around the abashed circle. It seemed to Anna that she was checking-up on the effect of her speech. In her own case she was conscious chiefly of repulsion.
"Why can't I be sorry for her?" she wondered. "It's like watching a poisonous snake that's chopped in two—only that I'd have more sympathy for the snake...It must be something she's done—something she is."
Gloria, however, was in her element as she put her arm around her gasping guest.
"Cliff, another cocktail for madame. You poor soul. What a terrible country."
Lady Evans made an instant protest.
"That's a most unwise remark. You don't know who may be listening. At home I speak my mind and fight the action afterwards; but whenever I clean up a foreign country, I remember I'm there on sufferance and it's up to me to keep a shut head."
"Just what I try to impress on my wife," agreed James. "I have had an awful time with her in India. After this, she stays at home. I tell her it's no good going off the deep end over injustice or cruelty, when she can't put the matter right. It only makes trouble for us."
Gloria looked around her and struck an effective pose.
"You must forgive us, madame," she said. "All this seems a thrill to us, like watching a Russian tragedy, just because we are strangers and here for only one night. You must remember we are hicks from Birmingham."
Sure of her own beauty and poise, which was cosmopolitan, she flashed a brilliant smile.
"Will you all have dinner with us?" she asked. "My husband has been interviewing the chef, so it will be different from the restaurant table d'hôte."
To Anna's disappointment, Stern was the only person to decline the invitation.
"I've just snatched something in the restaurant," he explained. "I have to go out on business. I want to meet a certain man who's difficult to trace. I shall probably see you again to-night."
"Perhaps we may not see you," remarked Madame Lötsch.
Stern acknowledged the innuendo with a bow.
"Good-night, madame. Sleep well. I trust the management has given you a good room."
Anna accompanied him as far as the revolving doors. Through the glass she could see a slow swirl of snowflakes in the broad shaft of electric light. Beyond was a white vagueness, broken by a dark flicker of shadows, flitting past in the glow of a street lamp.
"Doesn't it look mysterious and exciting?" she said.
He did not appear to be listening.
"I met that thieving student, Ivan, just now," he said. "He tells me he is doing some work for Lady Evans. She's quite sound, and the Jameses seem decent people. But that other woman is dangerous."
After he had swung out into the night, Anna lingered by the door, until she was joined by Clifford James.
"Enjoying it?" he asked.
"Everything," she told him, "including the spy."
"Ha, that's good publicity. He strikes me as a bit of local colour thrown in to attract tourists like ourselves. Quite a little English colony to-night."
"It was fun. Why don't we stay here for another day or so?"
Clifford shook his head.
"Not on your life," he told her. "We don't want to start any rough-house with the lady high executioner. She's evidently a big noise here, but that wouldn't stop Gloria from socking her in the jaw, if she got nasty."
"What on earth do you mean?" asked Anna. "Why should they fight?"
Already Stern had wiped out the memory of her own warning to Gloria over the incident of the lift.
"Why?" repeated Cliff. "You must be in love. Hasn't the joke struck you yet?...The Hirsch woman gets mad over the English, red-haired women and babies. And now Gloria's got the entire outfit."
ANNA had very little sleep that night. She was in an exalted mood when every emotion was exaggerated to an ecstasy, and her over-stimulated brain reeled backwards—reliving each impression. Clifford and Gloria had turned their last evening into a celebration—which was their farewell salaam to the East and their joyful hail to home.
It went with a burst and a bang—with the cracking of many bottles and the entertainment of strangers. Every man was the friend of his neighbour until the last glass was drained and the last song sung. The whole entertainment was pitched in so high a key that the next ascending note might touch a sob instead of a laugh.
Although they rarely spoke, Anna was acutely aware of Conrad Stern, who returned in time for the party. It was enough for her that he was there, where she could study his profile and listen to his voice. She told herself that nothing of him must be lost—no glance—no word. To-morrow she would have nothing but a memory.
Towards the end, the scene became strangely unreal and smeared with a blur of illusion. The lounge grew larger and glittered with its former magnificence. Walls rocked, lights flickered, shadows wavered. She heard Cliff's parting salutation to Stern—whom he had met for the first time a few hours before.
"Good-night, old man."
"Good-night, old man," responded a voice.
She believed she kissed some one, who was certainly not Clifford...After an interval she found herself at her bedroom window, looking out into the night. In her super-perceptive condition, details danced singly, until they merged into a glamorous whole...A spurt of golden light, as some one lit a cigarette in the street. Two youthful faces illumined by the match. The wail of a record playing "Gloomy Sunday." The perfume of white lilac. The ridge of snow-powdered roofs, like an Alpine range, viewed from afar. All the romance of the vanished summer had returned in the shimmer of starlight and the arrested echoes of the past.
"'Who knows but the world may end to-night,'" she quoted. "If only it would...Let me keep to-night. Let to-morrow never come."
Faced with the threat of the homeward-bound express, she wanted to stretch out the interval by staying awake; but towards dawn she fell asleep.
She was awakened by Gloria's voice.
"Wake up, Anna. I've paralysing news."
Gloria's unpowdered face looked so haggard above her honey-velvet wrapper that Anna was alarmed.
"Is it Susan?" she asked.
"Yes, she's got me worried. She's anything but normal."
So far Anna had seen little of the James baby; but she had heard her at bath-time, when she had given proof of sustained lung-power, which sounded like temper.
"Shall I come?" she asked, dutifully getting out of bed.
"No. Nothing you can do. Cliff is taking her temperature. I just buzzed in to warn you there might be a hold-up."
While she dressed, Anna felt almost guilty, as though the strength of her longing had been a vital force which had expended its energy upon the innocent James baby. In spite of the absurdity, her conscience pricked her when she entered the restaurant and found Clifford gravely discussing the situation with Lady Evans and Conrad Stern.
"She's a point above normal. Nothing to worry over, but my wife is nervous."
"It's her throat," declared Lady Evans.
"I wondered if it was troubling her." Cliff shot her the swift, semi-hunted look of a man who scented trouble. "That settles it. I shall ring up a doctor. She may need serum, and we can't get treatment in the train."
While Anna tried not to exult, Stern spoke for the first time.
"Unless it is serious, I strongly advise you not to postpone your journey. Get her inoculated, if you like, but for her own sake she's best at home."
"Why?" asked James.
"Because a purge is indicated after this outburst of disloyalty in the district. Things are going to happen that you are not accustomed to. Things you won't like."
"We shall be outside," remarked Lady Evans loftily. "They can't touch us."
"No, of course it won't touch you. But it will be in the air. An uneasy feeling that's bound to affect you adversely."
"Thanks, Stern," said Clifford, "but I must be guided by the doctor chap."
"I'll give you the telephone number I had for my colic," offered Lady Evans. "He looks like a scraping off the films, but he's good. Don't attempt to get his name. Just call him 'Doktor.'"
"And what's he going to call me?"
"Don't worry. You'll find your name all right on his bill. Come to my office for the number."
Anna looked at Stern reproachfully when they were alone.
"Do you really want us to go?" she asked.
"I know you are best away," he replied. "And now I have to go to the other end of the town."
When the doctor arrived soon afterwards he suggested Anna's idea of a cavalry officer in the White Army who had been reduced to progression on rockers. He was handsome but dissipated, with a discriminating eye, a partially shaven head and a charming manner.
He did not stay long in the bedroom; and after Cliff had accompanied him to the entrance, he told Anna her fate.
"Not going to-day. He took a swab of Susan's throat and nose. You should have seen the dirty look she gave him, but she approved him, on the whole. He's going to drop in to-night with the report."
In spite of the reprieve, the afternoon proved one of gloom and tantalising missed opportunity. Anna felt it a duty to stay in the dressing-room with the baby, to relieve Gloria—since Marie was considered not competent to deal with an emergency. When the light began to fade, she stood at the back window looking down on dirty snow piled up against squalid outbuildings.
"What's the good of it all?" she wondered. "To-day's an anti-climax. Far better if the world had ended last night."
To increase her annoyance, Gloria used her freedom merely to cultivate a friendship with Madame Lötsch. She brought her into her bedroom and exhibited the contents of her wardrobe. Anna had not met her since their schooldays, and had forgotten her susceptibility to flattery.
"You must see my baby," she urged, bringing her visitor into the dressing-room.
Madame Lötsch ignored Anna as she broke into fulsome praise of the baby's belongings.
"Oh, what a beautiful cot. What taste. Such an uncommon colour. There is everything to match. Never have I seen such a costly outfit...And such a baby. So sweet, so intelligent. Very soon she will be beautiful like her mother."
"She's not at her best," explained Gloria, trying to coax the baby's limp hair into curls.
"Ah, the illness," cried Madame Lötsch, dropping into a minor key. "You bear yourself with courage—but your mother's heart is sad. Yet you are happier than I. Your baby is here, but my baby is far away."
"How old is she now?" asked Anna, who calculated that the separation must have taken place many years before.
Madame Lötsch gave her a spiteful look.
"What does time matter to a mother?" she asked. "She will always be my baby. You know nothing. But madame understands. I, too, can share her sorrow to see her suffering baby."
"It's nothing," declared Gloria brightly. "She's just throwing a fit of temperament."
Anna could tell that her jaunty manner disguised acute anxiety, which increased as the evening wore on. There was so strong a sense of tension during dinner that, in spite of being in love, Anna could not preserve her detachment. Nothing mattered but the report on Susan James's swab.
The doctor arrived when the meal was finished, but he had no news. He explained that there had been a delay at the laboratory, but that he was very hopeful of the result.
His optimism was so robust and convincing that Cliff at once offered him a cigar and invited him to join their party. Directly the drinks began to circulate, Anna guessed that the doctor had timed his visit to secure a convivial evening. He was gay, tactful, entertaining—and after he had drained a few glasses these qualities were accentuated. When he discovered that these charming English wanted to go home he met them half-way.
"I have no doubt at all. To-morrow there will be a negative result. I will bring the news to-morrow morning."
"That means another day here," said Cliff. "We've heavy stuff to pack and we can't crate it in advance, in case we want it a bit longer."
"No, you will go," declared the doctor. "We are friends here to-night, but soon we part. We shall never meet again."
As the evening wore on they all fell under the spell of his charm. The effect was marred by one unpleasant episode which revealed another side to his nature. In the midst of his laughter his face grew suddenly grave and stiffened with repugnance.
Looking up, Anna saw Madame Lötsch crossing the lounge. Gloria at once beckoned to her to join them, but she only waved her cigarette-holder and hurried past their corner.
"No, she will not come," said the doctor grimly. "I am here—and she knows I am not sympathetic."
"But she's so ill," protested Gloria.
"Yes, she's dying. Why doesn't she finish it?"
The doctor turned suddenly to Anna.
"I noticed you also shrink from her. You are psychic, are you not? Why do you recoil?"
"There's something about her," said Anna.
"Something very evil. But it is not proved, so we must be careful." Without lowering his voice, the doctor told the story. "She was arrested together with her husband. She did not like him, but she cared for his money. It was said she gave evidence against him, to save her own skin. But that man was far too good for her. He was my friend."
"I shouldn't condemn her on such a fishy tale," said Gloria.
"Still—how does she live? Their fortunes were confiscated, but she is here at the expensive Hotel Dom...There is another person you must avoid—Hirsch, the People's Prosecutor. She is always mad—and when she is drunk she is a wild beast."
Anna was glad that Lady Evans was not present to gag the doctor, since a too strictly guarded tongue is never a passport to popularity. He seemed a boisterous wind blowing through the cobwebs of suspicion and caution, especially as he had the good sense not to out-stay his welcome.
"I could leave home for that man," Gloria told her husband when he had passed through the revolving door.
In spite of his broken promise, no one blamed the doctor when he failed to call early on the following morning. They tacitly agreed that he was delayed by the laboratory with its "Seychas" policy.
"I'll ring him up if he's not here by lunch," promised Clifford.
As he was speaking he was summoned to the booth in the lounge.
"Is the doctor with you still?" asked a woman's voice.
"He's not come yet," replied Cliff. "Who is speaking?"
"His wife. He went out early. Tell him his lunch is in the oven."
When the doctor did not come during the afternoon, Cliff chaffed his wife about her conquest.
"It's not your bright eyes, darling. He's leaving it late on purpose to cadge drinks. I bet you he won't come until this evening. Still, I'll give him a ring."
When the call was put through, Cliff recognised the voice of the doctor's wife, although it sounded farther away.
"No," she replied in answer to his question, "he is not yet returned. I have been informed that he was invited to attend at the prison. No charge, you understand, but to answer a few questions. Merely a formality. He will soon return...But his lunch is spoilt. It is often so."
Cliff's brow was puckered when he came out of the booth.
"What d'you make of it?" he asked Stern, who was standing near.
"When he's drunk, he talks," remarked Stern.
Lady Evans, who was also listening, suddenly became conscious that she was very busy.
"Don't ask me," she warned him. "No time. No time."
"A wise woman," said Stern, gazing after her retreating figure. "I shouldn't wait about, James. You'd better call in another doctor."
The doctor's wife was evidently of the same opinion. It was late at night when he heard her voice coming very faintly over the wire.
"I ring you up to say the doctor is still delayed. But he will return. The dinner, too, is spoilt. Since you have a sick child, it is my duty to advise you to get another doctor."
"Oh, we hardly like to do that," protested Clifford. "If there's a chance—"
"No," broke in the voice. "You cannot wait for my husband. He will be too long."
AS Stern had warned them, there was "something in the air"—an intangible distrust, a tendency to start at noises, an uneasy expectancy of disaster. Anna first became conscious of it when Lady Evans refused to discuss the doctor's absence.
"Some hitch," she said in the offended voice which signified that she was disturbed. "Can't stop to talk. Work to do."
On the other hand, Madame Lötsch hinted at too much.
"I know," she told Gloria, "for I've been through it myself. They liberated me and I waited at home for my husband to come too. It is terrible...Listening for the telephone, the footsteps. Trying to catch the rumour. For the rumour comes home first. It is always too horrible to be believed. But it is always true."
"I must get another doctor for my baby," interrupted Gloria, who was too distracted to display her usual sympathy.
"Ah, yes, your baby." Madame Lötsch's glance was spiteful. "She is the important one—not wives who wait. But if ever you have occasion to wait for your husband, you will know this. He will never return. It is always so."
"Yes, he will," said Gloria flippantly. "Some one will bring him back. He's got his tail-wagger's disc."
"I do not understand."
"No, we don't understand each other to-day. But, honestly, I'm terribly sorry for you."
Gloria went to find her husband, who was already tracking down the doctor recommended by the management of the hotel. This new medico broke the "Seychas" tradition by coming soon afterwards, and actually excused the delay by explaining that he had called first at the laboratory.
"There is no record there of the test-tube," he said. "We must begin again."
Out of loyalty to his magnetic predecessor, Gloria conceived a violent dislike to the new doctor. He was young and stout, with a square head, very thick glasses and fair hair, which was nearly white. Unfortunately, the baby seemed to sense her mother's antipathy, for she put up a strong resistance when he attempted to get a fresh swab. She struggled and roared, until he grew hot and flustered, but he plugged away at his duty.
"I do not hurt her," he told her parents. "This is hysteria. She needs a slap."
As Gloria looked capable of trying out the treatment on him, Clifford interposed soothingly:
"Oh, we don't do that, old man."
"But I am not old," said the doctor indignantly, scenting an illusion to his stout build. "I will call to-morrow at this hour and will acquaint you with the result of the test."
"I really believe he will," commented Cliff when he had gone, without a drink and with no one to accompany him to the door.
"He's a pompous little beast," declared Gloria. "I'm sure he hates us because we're English. Still, there's nothing for it but to wait."
That day proved an ordeal to every one but Anna. She accepted the blunder at the laboratory as a respite contrived by Fate for her and Conrad Stern. It was enough for her to be with him—however short or unsatisfactory their meeting. Although their minutes were rationed, there was always one moment—to be recalled later—of a rapture which came in a single glance or word.
Her spare time was spent in the dressing-room, when she was surprised to find herself growing quite interested in Miss Susan James. She had a stretchy temper and, at times, bore a striking resemblance to Lady Evans—in the grimness of her expression—but she also possessed a strong individuality and could appreciate a joke, if it were up to her standard.
As she looked at her, Anna was sometimes shaken by a gust of foreboding. Although the People's Prosecutor had not been seen at the hotel since the night of the farewell party, it was unpleasant to feel that, as long as she was in the district, the baby was in a zone of danger.
"She must never be left for a minute," she decided.
When, later, she mentioned her fear to Cliff, his brow grew furrowed.
"Don't go frightening Gloria," he said. "We shall soon know about the test now, and we may have luck."
As though to justify his optimism, when the doctor came the next morning he brought them satisfactory news.
"The test is negative."
"Then we can move on to-morrow?" exulted Gloria.
"No," corrected the doctor. "You must wait for five more negatives."
"Five? The other doctor said one."
"I am not the other doctor."
"But we can't stay. My husband has important business in England."
"In that case, you must go."
Feeling that she had won her point, Gloria gave him a dazzling smile.
"Then you think it's safe?"
"Not at all. If the child develops diphtheria on the journey there will be no serum and she may die. Still, your husband has big business—and there are many children in the world."
The doctor picked up his bag, but he stopped at the door to ask a question.
"Am I to make another test?"
Cliff looked at his wife, who glared at the doctor as she nodded.
"You win," she said bitterly.
Susan put up her most hostile demonstration during the treatment, and she went on forcing her screams after the doctor had left the nursery. Distracted by her yells, Gloria began to infuse the situation with the personal element.
"That doctor loves power. He hates me because I am a woman. I'm sure women have given him a thin time and he's taking it out on me. He's on top and he means to let me know it. I expect he thinks attractive clothes are immoral. He must be used to women like Anna, all cut from the same piece."
The contempt in her voice nearly precipitated a first-class row, as it wounded Anna in a tender spot. Just in time she realised that the cooped-up conditions were to blame.
"He's right about the six negatives," she said calmly.
As Gloria continued to mutter, there was a knock at the door.
"A complaint about the noise," whispered Anna nervously.
"Me," called Lady Evans. "What's the report?"
Directly she was inside the room, Gloria began to blast.
"I don't trust the man," she said. "He's stringing us along, just to run up a bill. It's his opportunity to come here every day and pry into our affairs. I wouldn't put it past him to have a sideline."
Lady Evans glanced at the emotionless face of Marie, the little nurse.
"He has the reputation of being clever," she said. "And you are most imprudent to say such things before the girl."
"Marie? She doesn't understand English."
"How do you know?"
"She shakes her head when I ask her."
"I'll try her." Lady Evans raised her voice. "Marie, go to my office and bring me my spectacles."
The girl turned at the sound of her name, but stared blankly, without obeying the order.
"You see," said Gloria.
"I will give you a rouble, when you come back," went on Lady Evans.
At the promise, Marie grinned broadly, bobbed to Lady Evans, and ducked through the door of the room.
"Well," gasped Gloria. "Why did she pretend?"
"Lazy," explained Lady Evans. "The less she understands, the less work for her. But it gives you the idea, doesn't it? Can't be too careful what you say."
Although no one suspected Marie of sinister motives, the incident sowed the seed of further distrust. They began to grow spy-conscious. If the rumour were founded on fact, he was actually in the hotel watching and listening. As the days wore on they heard footsteps in the corridor, but were always too late to see any one; the handles of their doors were turned, but they never caught any one in the act.
Every morning the new doctor arrived punctually to take a fresh swab of Susan's throat; but he always brought the good news of a negative test. That fact helped to drag them through the boredom of another day. Clifford James, in particular, drooped in the slough of inertia and was envious of Lady Evans, who isolated herself in her office.
"When I leave I shall have the satisfaction of knowing I've done something worth while," she remarked one day.
"What about my bathroom pipes?" demanded Cliff.
"They'll be choked again directly you're gone...But if it's work you want, I'll find you a job with some figures."
The next second she retracted the offer—a precaution which was not exactly indicative of an atmosphere of perfect trust.
Once again it was "something in the air."
SOME one tapped on the bedroom door.
"Come in," called Gloria.
No one entered. She crossed the room and looked outside, but the corridor was empty.
She knew that she had imagined the knock because, lately, she was continually hearing noises which were inaudible to others. Her head rang with trivial sounds—footsteps, cracking furniture, creaking boards.
Although she could not dissociate them altogether from the spy, her common sense attributed them to the state of her nerves.
"It's this waiting that's getting me down," she muttered.
She was waiting for her husband to come back. She was waiting for the baby to go to sleep. Most important of all, she was waiting for the doctor to bring her the news of the sixth test.
Her hopes of another negative were high, although he had been too conscientious to encourage her. Whenever she heard any one in the distance, her heart beat faster; but as time went on and he did not come, she began to grow anxious.
It was most unusual for him to be unpunctual. Her husband, too, had gone out merely to buy an English newspaper from a shop in the next street. As he was keenly eager to get the report, his absence was a vaguely disturbing fact.
Presently Madame Lötsch peeped round the corner of the door. She presented a pitiable spectacle of physical and moral collapse. Her black velveteen tunic was dusty and sprinkled with loose hairs, which showed that she had dispensed with a dressing-jacket. In spite of concealing patches of rouge, her face seemed shrivelled down to the bones; yet her smile flashed with manufactured gaiety.
"Ah, you are waiting too," she said. "May I come in?"
"Sure," invited Gloria. "I can do with company. I can't understand why that doctor hasn't turned up. You could set a clock by him."
"I do not trust him," said Madame Lötsch. "He is newly-married, so he wants to make more money. He has seen this beautiful room and knows you are rich. It will not surprise me if he tells you to-day that you must begin all over again."
"I wouldn't stand for that. No one can play me for a sucker."
"Yet he tells you to stay here—and you stay."
"Silly, isn't it? But diphtheria is such a damnable thing that one dare not take risks, in case he should be right."
"What does your clever husband say?"
"I don't know. He's out."
"I saw him go. But he said it was only for five minutes."
Madame Lötsch's voice was charged with so much meaning that Gloria felt the blood rush to her head.
"I shall go crackers," she exploded suddenly, "sticking in this room day in, day out."
"But you have a nurse. Why do you stay?"
Gloria was on the point of explaining that Marie was not old enough to accept responsibility, when it occurred to her that Madame Lötsch might offer her services as substitute. She did not share in the general prejudice against the woman, because, in her opinion, her condition exempted her from criticism. It was a tradition to speak only good of the dead, and—according to medical evidence—madame was not officially alive.
Besides, they had found points of common interest; while Anna and Gloria were anti-pathetic, madame and she could discuss dress, cosmetics and scandals about highly-placed people outside their circle.
All the same, she shrank from the thought of her prying among her things or breathing in the baby's face.
"Have you seen my friend?" she asked.
"Oh, yes, she is now in the lounge talking secretly to that Stern. She must be careful, for they do not speak well of him."
"He's English, so he's all right. Dog does not eat dog, you know. Would you be angelic and ask her to come up to me?"
Anna did not look amiable when she entered the room, for she resented the interruption; but when she saw Gloria's strained face her expression changed.
"Doctor not come yet?" she asked. "Shall I ring him up?"
"I was going to ask you to. You see, he may be detained in his surgery."
Anna went from the room, and Gloria waited impatiently for her return. There seemed no end to this interminable pacing of the floor...Stepping between the lengthwise joints of the planks, lest it should be unlucky to cross them. Stopping to glance out of the front window at the snow-caked street. Peeping into the dressing-room, to assure herself that the baby was still alive in her cot...
The time slipped by, until she felt that she could endure the suspense no longer. She soon discovered that Madame Lötsch was not the stimulating company she required, because she was too obviously expectant of some calamity.
"Madame," she said at last, "would you find out what has become of my friend?"
When, after another lengthy period, Anna appeared, she shook her head impatiently before Gloria could speak.
"Hopeless. The fools kept telling me there was no such number. When I chased a directory and showed it them, then they said the number was engaged."
"Cliff would have got through somehow."
"Then it's up to me? All right, I'll have another shot at it."
Anna was only too glad to escape, for she was hopeful of getting a fresh opportunity to see Conrad. Alone once more, Gloria walked to the window over the "backs" and stared out at the jumble of uneven white roofs which climbed up to ridges and dropped down into hollows. The real cold weather had not yet set in and there had been no further snow, but the first fall was still unmelted and had grown shabby.
Gloria looked distastefully down at a slope which was mottled with smuts and perforated from drips. In the distance a small local train—candle-lit, with wooden two-deckers—bumped along the rails between the congested buildings. Its whistle drowned the shouts of two women who brawled in the courtyard.
Turning away from the bleak monotony of the outlook, she went into the dressing-room, where Marie was waiting for release.
"Please," she besought, instantly rising, "I go?"
"All right," said Gloria. "Come back soon."
"Much too soon," promised Marie.
Susan, who was another opportunist, saw her chance to get some entertainment. So long as Marie stated up at the ceiling with philosophic calm, she had been content to follow her example, while she sucked the forbidden dummy. At the sight of her mother, however, she struggled up in her cot.
She looked a pitiful little object as she began to cry. With her peaked face and her fluff of hair still damp from the pillow, she was rather like a newly-hatched chick, in her knitted frock of pale yellow Angora wool.
Partly to distract herself, Gloria began to give her a cabaret entertainment, while the baby watched her coldly. She did not meet with any real success until her foot slipped during a tap-dance and she sprawled on her back, giving her head a blow.
This was something which Susan could understand—for her humour was of the Lady Evans brand—which delighted in the discomfiture of others. When her shouts for a repeat performance met with no response from a profane parent, she began to howl.
In the midst of the uproar, there was the sound of a sharp knocking. With Susan in her arms, Gloria rushed into her bedroom and threw open the door.
"Oh, doctor," she cried eagerly.
Before her stood the enormous blonde woman who had been pointed out to her as the Public Executioner. There was no doubt as to her objective, for her face was red with rage as she pointed to Susan.
"She is not to cry," she shouted in Russian. "Stop her!"
"Go away!" commanded Gloria in English. "How dare you come here?"
They understood each other perfectly in that moment before Gloria slammed the door in the face of the People's Prosecutor.
She was badly shaken by the incident because Susan was implicated. While she was trying to quiet her in vain, there was another tap on the door.
This time it was the dapper manager of the hotel who waited outside in the corridor.
"Madame," he said hurriedly, "there is a complaint of noise from the baby. I shall have to request you to go, if it continues."
"I will tell my husband."
Even as she made the promise, Gloria was sure that she would never see Cliff again. Too many women in Russia walked the floor, waiting for husbands who did not return. Yet in her imagination she pictured him coming through the doorway, when she rushed to meet him—holding him close to her heart and covering his face with kisses...
At that moment he came into the room, in reality. His hat was jauntily set on one side and his face was radiant. Directly she knew that all was well she remembered her mental anguish and became conscious of being the injured party.
"Isn't it clinking news?" he called.
"What news?" she inquired distantly, turning her cheek from his kiss of greeting.
"The test, of course. Negative."
"Very nice. Why did you keep it on ice?"
He stared at her.
"Why, old girl, didn't you get my message? Directly I met the doctor chap I scribbled his report on a card and tipped the bell-boy to bring it up to you at once."
"Why couldn't you come yourself?"
"Because I wanted to pay the doctor chap. I walked back with him to his house to get the bill and I was introduced to his wife. A blazing beauty and potty on him. No wonder he was immune to your charm."
Gloria surrendered to the flood of happiness which was sweeping over her. Although she mentioned her last grievance, she was laughing from sheer relief at becoming normal.
"I've some news for you. We have been given notice from the hotel. It seems our baby cries."
"Fine. It's accepted. I'm going right out to buy our tickets and make reservations."
"Darling, how marvellous...At last I can relax."
IT was characteristic of Gloria that she could not relax without the aid of suitable undress. Although she was reduced to a state of fatigue when she wanted to drop down on the nearest chair, she changed into her oyster satin pyjamas.
She was carefully powdering her face when some one tapped on the door. Without waiting for permission to enter, once again Madame Lötsch hurried into the room.
"I have just heard that you go back to England to-morrow," she cried. "I offer all my congratulations. Oh, you are indeed lucky. You English are always on velvet."
"Velveteen," corrected Gloria. "But it's swell."
"Ah, you are in the sunshine—but I am in the shadow. I who am about to die, salute you."
Even while Madame Lötsch prostrated herself in a theatrical posture, her attention strayed and she stared enviously at the toilet-chest.
"Oh, la, la!" she exclaimed, rising to examine the array of flasks and pots, "no wonder you are so beautiful. I—who used to have all—now have nothing."
Smothering her distaste, Gloria made a typical gesture.
"Do take them, just to remind you of me."
"No, I have not come to receive," Madame Lötsch laughed shrilly. "I have come to give. My baby had to leave her doll behind her. It is very beautiful and very expensive. I want your baby to have it, to amuse her on the journey."
Gloria's face lit up, although she was unable to decide whether it were a gift or a loan.
"She'll be enchanted," she declared. "When we left India I burned her toys, for fear of infection. But I'll only borrow it. I'll return it to your little girl personally and then I can tell her all about you. Will you give me your brother's address?"
As though she was prepared for the request, madame's fingers groped inside her tunic and she produced a slip of paper.
"It is written here," she said. "I accept your offer with joy. It is your mother's heart that speaks, is it not? And will you, at the same time, personally give this little note to my brother? It is private and confidential, you understand."
Gloria frowned slightly as Madame Lötsch drew a letter from the same hiding-place. To undertake a sentimental mission was a different thing from merely saving postage.
"I may lose it," she objected. "Can't you write to your brother in the usual way?"
"Assuredly I can." Madame gave a crooked smile. "But I say things only to the censor. I have to think—think—and the words go away on wings. I would talk from my heart to those I love. But I am still under observation...Consider, madame, you write to your husband when he is away. Would you like your letter to be read by grinning clerks?"
"No. I understand. Give me the letter," said Gloria impulsively.
"You will guard it very carefully?"
"I'll put it here."
"A million thanks. I will go at once to search for the doll. It is with my stored baggage."
When Madame Lötsch had gone, Gloria placed the letter inside a pocket of her handbag before she flung herself down amid the cushions on the bed.
"Swell," she murmured, closing her eyes.
She was nearly asleep when she started awake at the sound of her husband's voice.
"Well," he said briskly, "we're all set for to-morrow. I've got our tickets and reservations. Like to see them?"
Sitting up, Gloria pressed them dramatically to her heart.
"Precious things," she said. "I don't know what you paid for them, but they're worth double the price. Let me keep them."
She stretched for her bag, but before she could open it her husband had taken the tickets from her.
"You'll lose them," he told her. "Golly, your bag's stuffed. Are you collecting the laundry?"
His remark reminded her of Madame Lötsch's letter. She was about to mention it when he distracted her attention by sniffing.
"The air reeks of rank perfume. Has Madame Lötsch been here?"
"Yes, she came to offer baby the loan of a doll for the journey.
"U'm. Any strings to it?"
"I've promised to return it personally to her family."
"Down in Hereford."
"The petrol will cost more than the doll. But I suppose it's a case of last wishes. That doctor chap told me she's out-lived her time limit. She's practically a walking corpse...Darling, what's the matter?"
To Clifford's dismay, Gloria suddenly began to cry.
"I can't help it," she sobbed. "It's just nerves. But I'm so glad—so very glad—to be going home that I'm afraid something may stop us at the last minute."
"What could stop us? Don't be a sap, darling."
"I know. I'm a fool. Give me my hanky...in my bag."
"Clifford James, don't dare to work off that stale old stage trick on me. I'd sooner blow my nose on my sleeve."
Gloria blinked the tears from her lashes and became her normal self—while her bag remained unexplored.
Outside in the corridor Anna heard her laughter and envied her resilience. She was in a grey mood because it was her last day in Russia. To-morrow she and Conrad Stern would drift apart again.
There was only a glimmer of daylight and the electric lights were kept burning in the hotel, making a continuous night. As she had little to pack, she spent the time in the lounge watching the stagnant scene. Towards evening there was a spurt of life and the place grew miraculously animated and brilliant, like a faded photograph suddenly changing into a coloured motion-picture.
Conrad Stern swung through the revolving doors and crossed directly to her chair.
"This time to-morrow you will be on your way home," he remarked.
"I know. I know."
"Glad to go?"
"I might be if Gloria were not so fatally glad. But I wish you were coming too."
"So do I."
As his eyes met hers they reflected her own longing.
"Then why don't you come?" she asked eagerly.
"Because I have to wait to—"
"To meet a certain man."
"No—an uncertain man...James has asked me to dinner to-night. He means to celebrate."
In spite of a full day, it was evident that Clifford had spared neither time nor trouble in order to make his last evening a success. The meal was specially chosen, and a tiny Union Jack was stuck in the middle of the table. To mark the occasion, Gloria did not dress, but appeared in her morning frock with her bag tucked under her arm.
"I'm partly packed," she explained jubilantly to Lady Evans.
Every one appeared to be in high spirits and the little party attracted many envious glances and remarks. Madame Lötsch made a dive towards them, to angle for an invitation, but Cliff was blandly inhospitable as he pointed to the flag.
"We're keeping it English to-night," he said. "I am sure you understand."
When healths were being drunk, Lady Evans raised her glass.
"A safe return," she said.
"Safe," echoed Gloria under her breath. She told herself complacently that Madame Lötsch was right when she declared that they belonged to a favoured nation. No plot could touch them—no money-shortage affect their credit. Protected by British prestige, they were immune from the suspicions and intrigues of this shadowed town.
There was no flaw in the arrangements for their journey. Every precaution had been taken to guard against discomfort. Tickets and passports were in order. Most important of all, her baby was safe from any monstrous Lilith on the prowl.
Before she went down to dinner she had locked the door of their suite and taken the key with her. It was a natural precaution against pilfering by hotel-thieves, since Marie could not watch the bedroom from her nursery. In case of mishap, she had been instructed to ring her bell.
Everything was safe—provision for any contingency, insurance against any ill...At that point in her reflections, Clifford sent a waiter to get cigars from the stand. When the man returned and the selection was finally approved, he turned to his wife.
"Have you any loose change? I've run out."
She passed him her bag and went on listening to Lady Evans, who was giving a sensational account of her visit to a Russian maternity clinic.
Suddenly she was startled by the sound of her husband's voice.
"Gloria! How did this get in your bag?"
She glanced casually at the letter in his hand.
"Madame Lötsch gave it to me," she replied. "Didn't I tell you about it?"
"You did not. I am waiting to hear."
His voice was stern and attracted the attention of the party. Every one stopped talking and listened to her explanation. As she looked uneasily around her, she seemed surrounded with grave accusing faces.
"Anything wrong?" she asked defiantly.
"Oh, nothing," her husband told her. "You merely offered to carry a letter—the contents of which you do not know—but which Madame Lötsch prefers not to trust to the post...It must be returned immediately."
"I'd like the job," muttered Lady Evans grimly.
Gloria laughed to demonstrate detachment, but she watched her husband as though he were carrying dynamite. When he returned to the table she spoke with a catch in her voice.
"D-did she take it back?"
"Obviously. She had no choice."
"Was she angry?"
"No. She knew all right. But of course she was surprised by my extraordinary request, since it was such an innocent, harmless letter. Just a family letter, but even postage was a drain in view of her exhausted revenue. Directly I offered to stamp and post it, she snatched it from me."
"I can make a shrewd guess what was in it," remarked Lady Evans. "She boasted to me about family jewels which she had managed to hide when the property was confiscated. Depend on it, she was trying to smuggle the information through to England so that her daughter might benefit."
"Very natural too," admitted Clifford, "but not at my expense. I have a daughter too."
He paid for that remark when the party had broken up. Directly she reached her bedroom Gloria resurrected it to convict herself.
"I have a daughter too," she wailed. "It was thoughtful of you to remind me of it. But not too kind. I shall never forgive myself. If anything had happened to her it would be through my criminal carelessness."
In the end, Clifford had to perjure himself in his efforts to prove to her that the fault was his alone, when she forgave him, and harmony was restored.
Before she got into bed she went to the window and unshuttered it in order to look out at the town. Transformed by the brilliant starlight to a black-and-white futuristic picture of sharp angles and elongated shadows, it appeared fantastic and unreal.
"Our last night in Russia," she gloated.
But although it was second nature to her to let her husband salve her conscience, even he could not secure her refreshing sleep. After the usual nightmare—in which she packed endlessly for a train which was already lost—she awoke with a start.
The bed seemed to be falling away under her as she realised the danger she had escaped. Even while she congratulated herself on her security, she had been standing—one foot dangling in empty air—on the lip of a precipice.
Anna, too, slept only by fits and starts. Whenever she awoke, she noticed the light shining through the glass transom of the adjoining bedroom, which was occupied by Madame Lötsch. On any other occasion she would have felt it a duty to offer help—but in the special circumstances, she felt that solicitude would be a farce.
The Jameses were up very early on the following morning, in order to prepare for their journey. Cliff was howling in his bath and Gloria was drinking a glass of scalding tea in bed, when the door was pushed open and Madame Lötsch came in.
She was still wearing her black velveteen pyjamas, as though she had not undressed, and her eyes were red from want of sleep. In her arms was a beautiful life-size doll, of pre-war Austrian manufacture. It was modelled like a baby and was dressed in a muslin frock, embroidered in gay colours.
Gloria felt rather conscience-stricken when Madame Lötsch laid it down on her bed.
"To amuse your baby on your journey," she explained. "But afterwards my daughter will be glad to receive her doll again."
Thankful that it was to be a mutual benefit, Gloria was beginning to thank Madame Lötsch, when the woman interrupted her.
"Imagine my annoyance. The doll had a magnificent Viennese trousseau, but when I opened the case it was all destroyed by the moth. So I had to make her another frock, in about two minutes. You see, it is very rough, as I was careful not to cut the material. My daughter will like to wear it afterwards as a blouse. Will you specially remember to explain the circumstances, when you tell her it is her mother's work, so that I am not shamed. She herself is an accomplished needlewoman."
Gloria promised, even while she felt slightly confused by the daughter's vacillations in time—changing from babe to adult, according to her mother's whim.
"I hope my husband did not offend you by returning your letter," she said. "He's such a fuss."
"It was to assure you of my understanding that I bring you the doll," explained Madame Lötsch. "But no matter. You will be my letter...I have no ill-will to you. Only, I hate Russia. I shall be glad to get away."
"Are you going soon?"
"Who knows? I may leave the country before you...Good-bye."
Gloria forgot her almost before the door was shut.
"Cliff," she shouted, "she's brought the doll. I'm taking it in to baby."
"Wait for me."
The baby was sitting up in her cot and taking notice when her parents came into the nursery. They were only eager to see her pleasure and were unconscious that her reception of the doll foreshadowed a future event of utmost importance.
"Baby," she said, looking at it with a most unfriendly expression.
"No, dollie," corrected Gloria.
"Baby," insisted her daughter.
It was obvious that she accepted the doll as a contemporary and was jealous of its superior charms, which she regarded as unfair foreign competition.
"It's got her fooled," chuckled Cliff. "She must be slipping."
Even while he spoke, the baby's distrustful look was replaced by a jib of grim determination. Tugging the doll by her wig, she shook her violently to and fro.
"She's got on to the idea," said Gloria proudly. "She always treats her dolls rough. But madame can't see her, and I'm glad to know she's normal."
While the baby was expressing her maternal urge in the nursery, Anna was speaking of Madame Lötsch to Stern. Unable to wait in her room, she had gone down to the dingy restaurant and joined him as he drank his coffee.
"Was that letter a trap?" she asked.
"Of course not," he replied.
"All the same, I've never trusted her. Remember there's a spy in the hotel."
"There are spies everywhere. I'm glad you're getting out of it to-day...And now the time has come to say good-bye."
"Shall we meet again?"
"I hope so." He drew out his notebook. "Let me have a telephone number or address, in case I get back to England."
"I'll give you my lawyer," she said vaguely.
He scribbled down the address and then looked at her, as though he was impressing her face upon his memory.
"This seems all we can do for the present," he said. "I shall try to be at the station. But if I don't make it, give my love to the Broadway."
She smiled at him, unable to trust her voice. When he had gone she sat down again and closed her eyes. Presently she was aware of confusion and noise around her, but she felt too dejected to return to the world she had just blotted out. It was not until she heard a voice mention Madame Lötsch's name that her interest revived.
"What's the matter?" she asked, as a waiter hurried past her.
He stopped long enough to give her the news.
"Suicide. Madame Lötsch has swallowed poison and is dead."
ANNA did not see Conrad before she left the hotel, as they made a premature start to the station. They were practically driven away by the state of Gloria's nerves. Madame Lötsch's suicide had been not only a natural shock, but it had convinced her of the danger they had escaped.
"It proves she was desperate," she declared. "We were her chance and she cared nothing about our fate. She knew she would be safely out of it herself."
"The poor soul was doomed and decided to avoid inevitable suffering," said Cliff soothingly. "No one can blame her for that."
"But think of the narrow shave we had of being mixed up with her. I can never forgive myself. I fell into her trap like a half-wit...Oh, do hurry. I shan't feel safe until we are out of this horrible town."
Although her husband and Anna kept reminding her that the peril had been averted, she drove them on to finish the preparations for their journey. Cliff was in his element as he took command in what seemed to Anna a nightmare chaos. Trunks were packed, labels written, the baby's outfit crated, final details of the agency arranged over the telephone, without loss of time or temper.
During a lull, he drew Anna aside and produced a small parcel with an air of mystery.
"Slip this in your bag, Anna," he whispered. "Don't let Gloria see you. It's a sleeping draught and medicine-glass. Directly we're in the train, I'm going to make her lie down and get a nap."
"While I take charge of her baby," reflected Anna bitterly.
She felt thoroughly out of sympathy with the Jameses, because of her own unhappiness. They were concentrating on their own interests and detaining her, while she was watching for another chance to meet Conrad Stern.
It was an additional pang to acknowledge the fact that the attraction appeared non-reciprocal. Instead of spending the last precious hours with her, he was apparently out on his own special business of "meeting a man."
Her thoughts kept sliding back to the underground dive.
"It must be a woman," she decided.
Filled with bitterness, she found it difficult to refrain from snapping at the Jameses.
"You're not going to lug that doll back to England?" she protested, when Gloria directed that it should be placed on top of a pile of carriage baggage. "It's as big as your baby, and it's far too heavy for her to hold."
"But it belongs to madame's child," said Gloria pensively. "Her favourite toy. I'm a mother myself, so that counts with me. It's a duty to do what she asked...And it might amuse baby."
"It will be as bad as having a second child to cart round."
"Nonsense. The little nurse shall carry it to the station, and afterwards, there'll be crowds of porters. Cliff, can there be any risk in bringing back the doll?"
Whipping off the muslin frock, Clifford examined the doll carefully—inserting the point of his penknife into the minute cracks of the joints. He untied the hair-ribbon, parted its curls, shook it vigorously, and then passed it to Anna to re-dress.
"Impossible to slip even a flimsy paper inside," he declared. "It's too elaborately manufactured. I declare this beautiful young lady to be void and innocent as the day she was made—without an idea in her head."
At that moment, Anna raised the doll which was lying flat on her lap. The jerk made it open its blue eyes with a life-like effect of surprise which was almost uncanny.
It was its sole accomplishment. In spite of its beauty, it could neither walk nor talk. It had no squeak to press, no strings to pull, no key to wind.
Yet it was better informed on a certain subject than any one in the room. What was more, it could tell what it knew to those who understood its language.
Even then, there was one person who was on the trail of its secret. It was the spy who had crept into the locked bedroom of Madame Lötsch. He came through the window which was easily reached from an adjacent balcony.
At the moment, he had no definite objective, but was scouting vaguely on the chance of acquiring information. In his perilous profession, a crumb of additional knowledge might turn the scales in his favour. Avoiding looking at the rigid form on the bed—covered by a sheet—he stealthily opened drawers and boxes in his search for documents.
He found little of interest among the papers, but presently noticed something which made him pause speculatively. It was not an unusual feature of a lady's wardrobe, for it was nothing more remarkable than a complete set of expensive clothing.
As he stared at it, he asked himself a question.
A footstep in the corridor sent him vaulting the balcony rail on his way back to whence he came. Two minutes later, he strolled across the lounge with the nonchalance of any guest. He sauntered out of the hotel, and was turning down a side street when some one spoke to him in harsh tones of command.
He was under arrest.
For one moment, his mind played with the idea of flight. Then he realised that it was hopeless and that he must depend upon his own wit to slip his head out of the noose.
In his trade, short shrift was allowed. To-morrow's purge would bring a haul of fresh prisoners who would require expert attention and examination. The inference was a speedy encounter with a blonde lady in a cellar.
Being no gentleman, he disliked blondes. Besides, the shooting-party would probably be thrown that night, when he hoped to accept another invitation. In the dilemma, he had no alternative but to avail himself of the spy's privilege.
He could sell some one else's secret, in return for his own safety...
Meanwhile, Anna remained on the watch for Conrad Stern. At every opportunity, she went out of Gloria's bedroom, and leaning over the tarnished gilt rail of the encircling staircase, stared down at the well below.
She was at the end of her patience, for Gloria was exacting in her demands for those travel-comforts which Anna regarded as encumbrances. Her husband encouraged her by gratifying every wish; as though his small family were of supreme importance to the universe.
What annoyed her most was his light touch in reference to the imminent purge.
"Very funny to you," she said. "But, perhaps, not so funny to the people waiting in prison. You forget them."
His eyes grew suddenly stern.
"I forget them," he said, "for a good reason. I know more than you about these things...Sweetheart, here's your fruit."
Gloria stopped in her toilet for further reflection.
"Have we enough eau-de-Cologne?" she asked.
"We might run short," he agreed. "There's some in the showcase downstairs."
After he had strolled from the room, Anna suddenly thought of a way out of her difficulty. She had forgotten that she was a free agent. Her face lit up, as though she actually saw before her an opening door.
"Gloria," she said eagerly, "I've decided not to go to-day."
Gloria started dangerously in the act of applying mascara to her lashes.
"Nothing doing," she remarked firmly. "We've got it all fixed up with your Conrad Stern. We promised him we'd see you through."
"What's he got to do with it?"
"You should know. The fact is he thinks you may be involved with the purge, if your boy friend should try a spot of perjury. That's why Cliff was joking about Fleischer. He always tries to be funny, when he's rattled."
"He can stop worrying on my account. I refuse to allow you to run any risk through me. You've not only got yourselves to think of. There's your baby."
Gloria's eyes grew suddenly scared although her voice remained light.
"Do you imagine we've forgotten that slight detail?" she asked. "Nothing can happen, because we shall be safely across the frontier before Friend Fleischer is due here. But, at the very worst—which is impossible—Lady Evans has promised to bring my baby back to England. Can you see her husband's face when she comes home with a bundle in her arms?"
"No. I can't let you—"
"And you can't stop us. We're not skunks. We're going to see you through...Curse, the black's gone in my eye."
Anna turned away, feeling completely shamed by the Jameses' standard of loyalty. But her heart had grown lighter, as she realised that Conrad's indifference screened his real anxiety for her safety. He, too, was conscious of a time limit which it was dangerous to exceed.
At the same time, it was a shock to learn that her former fears were not vain fancies. Now, there was not only the tip of a tentacle flickering from sunlit water, but a dark blotch quivering below, in proof that the hidden horror had risen nearer to the surface.
She wanted to get away as soon as possible—yet she was tenacious not to be separated from Conrad.
"I'll make him come back with me," she determined.
She was first to go down to the lounge, where she waited amid the piles of luggage which were being brought down in the lift. Soon Clifford appeared and directed its transit in the various vehicles. Gloria arrived with the nursery contingent—the little nurse proudly carrying a doll such as she had never handled before—as though she satisfied an overdue ambition.
When the bills were paid, an entire staff appeared miraculously in the lounge and gathered, like a loyal bodyguard, around Clifford. In the midst of the confusion, he turned to Anna and spoke to her confidentially.
"I can draw my first easy breath now."
"What were you bothering about?" asked Anna.
"Well, you know Gloria. Impetuous. I was afraid she might get at loggerheads with the shooting gallery lady...Come on, lass."
He led the way to the car which waited outside the Hotel Dom. As it began to move, the spy was talking to the prison from a telephone booth.
"I'm on the track of something which seems suspicious. These are the details..."
AS Clifford had predicted, there was a long time to wait at the station. Anna grew tired of the enormous hall—which was a cross between a cathedral and a garage—although her party was among the privileged few who sat on benches. The place was crowded with passengers, which included a number of men wearing sour sheepskins, wooden-soled boots and red armlets.
After the manner of soldiers of any nation, they began to shout remarks to the little nursemaid, Marie, who encouraged them with smiles and murmured repartees. Still carrying the doll, she sauntered away casually from her English employers, and was soon engaged in a promising flirtation.
Gloria, who was nursing the baby, called Anna's attention to the girl.
"Little baggage...Oh, Anna, we're here. Very soon, we'll be across the frontier. I'm nearly crazy with joy."
To Anna's surprise, her voice was husky with emotion. She looked finished and sophisticated as though she had just stepped out of a Hollywood studio and was posing for the press photographers. In defiance of the cold, she wore transparent stockings, while her short fur coat was her sole concession to the temperature. But under the veil of her skull-cap her eyes swam with tears.
"Oh, Anna, I can't tell you what these days have been like," she said. "The awful hours of waiting—waiting, for Cliff to come back to the hotel. I must have walked miles while I was watching the street from my bedroom window. And the same dream every night. A great white trap with icy jaws, which kept clashing together, like those models in a dentist's window. Cliff was always so close to it—"
She broke off as Cliff, who had been in conference with an official, came back to his seat.
"A miracle," he announced. "The express is practically on time. Only a mere forty minutes late. We had better join the queue."
"One minute," said Anna.
In a last spurt of hope, she rushed to the top of the great flight of snow-caked steps. Overhead, a team of plunging horses had apparently been arrested by the frost which sealed the port, and had stiffened in mid-air. But there was no sign of Conrad Stern. With a cheated feeling, she returned to the hall, to find her friends involved in a scene.
The little nurse—her face red and distressed—was holding out a naked doll. Apparently the soldiers had been rough-handling it and had torn off its frock.
"The swine!" cried Gloria furiously
"Steady on." Cliff's eyes were watchful for critical spectators. "Don't insult the army. It's only a joke."
"But the doll looks absolutely indecent, and they're all grinning at it. Marie, where's its frock?"
"I don't know," wailed the girl. "They stripped her, but they wouldn't give it back to me. I didn't steal it."
"Of course not," said Cliff soothingly, as he gave the doll to Anna. "You might find one of our infant's frocks for it, Anna. The spare ones are in the second suitcase from the top. We can't stage a Lady Godiva act here."
Kneeling on the dirty platform, Anna fished up the first garment and hastily dressed the doll. When she got up again, she discovered that the Jameses were several places in front of her in the queue. Cliff was carrying the baby, while Marie had evidently been dismissed, for she was prancing away with one of the soldiers. To her annoyance, she was left to hold the doll, which—besides being an armful—created unwelcome attention.
Inch by inch, they crawled towards the barrier, where an official examined their hand-baggage. An old memory stirred within her brain of snailing for hours, along the Thames Embankment in a queue which ended in Westminster Hall, where a dead king received his last homage. That seemed to have happened in another life—yet even then, she was actually on her way back to London.
Then she watched the official as he opened Gloria's handbag. There was nothing scamped about his inspection. He examined every compartment exhaustively and even felt the lining.
It made her shudder as she realised the narrow margin by which they had scraped through without disaster. Evidently Clifford was of her opinion, for he looked back, caught her eye and grimaced.
"If he had discovered Madame Lötsch's letter," thought Anna, "we'd be sunk."
Gloria turned round to smile triumphantly as she passed the barrier. She was waiting for Anna to join her, when her husband, who had been standing apart, talking to an official, thrust the baby into her arms.
"I'll be back in a minute," he told her. "Wait here. Don't move, or I may not be able to find you again."
Gloria nodded and began to watch Anna, who was faring badly at the barrier, owing to the incubus of the doll. She was struck by the unhappy expression of the girl's face and wondered whether it were connected with Conrad Stern's absence. When, at last, Anna struggled to her side, she looked around for her husband, but could not see him in the crowd.
"Where's Cliff?" asked Anna.
"I don't know. He vanished suddenly...Oh, Anna, can you hear what I hear?"
"The train?" Anna's voice was flat. "Yes, it's coming in dead to time."
Clanking and shrieking, the express steamed into the station, which became instantly a scene of wild confusion. There was a violent surge forward, like a river bore, as the passengers fought to enter the coaches with the hard places. Nothing was left of the organised queue which had waited for hours in uncomplaining patience.
"We've got to wait here," shouted Gloria. "I think Cliff is arranging for preferential treatment over our seats. He'll soon be back."
Anna was only grateful for the delay which gave her a few extra minutes of grace. But—while she looked around her in the hope of seeing Conrad—Gloria began to feel the familiar gallop of her heart.
Once again she was waiting for her husband to come back to her. She watched the grimed clock and the slow drop of the minute-hand, until her impatience grew to a fever and she wanted to scream.
Anna followed her gaze.
"He's cutting it rather fine," she said. "I'll see if I can find him."
"No," Gloria clutched her arm. "We should only lose you too."
The crowd was now fast thinning as the train filled. In her turn, Anna began to share Gloria's anxiety. While time was passing, doors were being slammed and trucks emptied of baggage. Presently as a hint to latecomers, the iron gates to the platform began to wheel slowly together.
"Look," cried Gloria suddenly. "There he is. Inside that office. Perhaps he doesn't know the train is in."
As they drew nearer to the dirty window, they saw that Cliff was listening to some lengthy statement from an official. His expression was grim, and when they tapped upon the glass, he waved them away.
"Something's wrong," said Anna.
"What does it matter? He's here. I thought I shouldn't see him again. And we've missed the train any old way."
Peeping through the locked grille, they watched the express roll from the station in a cloud of steam.
"Sorry I'm late." Clifford's voice made them turn.
"Give me the baby, dear. She's heavy for you."
"Well, have you men been swapping dirty stories?" asked Gloria lightly.
As she stared at her husband, something in his forced smile chilled her heart. In that moment, she knew. She had known all the time.
Something would stop them from going away.
Anna knew it too, but she was gripped with hopeless fatalism which deadened fear.
"I needn't have worried about not seeing Conrad again," she thought. "That was already arranged."
"Well," explained Cliff, "there's going to be a little delay. But it's all right."
"Yes." Gloria smiled at him. "It's all right."
Useless to struggle...A force had slammed down on them, paralysing their resistance. Their luggage was left on the platform while they crowded into a filthy straw-littered cab and drove away.
Although they recognised local landmarks, it seemed a different town—so fundamentally changed was their circumstance. On their way to the station, they were prosperous tourists who belonged to a favoured nation. They were returning as anonymous suspects, in a fog of uncertainty and doubt.
"What's it all about?" asked Gloria.
"Hanged if I know," shrugged her husband. "I was merely told, with emphasis, that we could not leave by that train."
"I supposed my hair clashed with their colour-scheme...Was anything wrong with our visas?"
"Apparently not. As far as I could gather, we are detained for a short time, pending the findings of certain inquiries."
"Then where are we going?"
"To see the Commandant."
"You mean—the prison?"
"Yes, I insisted on that. I'm going to raise a hell of a shindy and I believe in starting at the top."
"Liar." Gloria smiled at him. "This is going to be amusing. I've never been pinched before. Cliff, do you know the answers?"
"Only the Vine Street vernacular. Apparently we've reached our destitution."
His remark typified the parched brand of humour which was all they could extract to meet the situation creditably—according to their standard. As Anna listened, she wished they would abandon the attempt and face facts, instead of dodging them.
"What are they going to make inquiries about?" she asked.
"Ah, you have me there," said Cliff. "I'm very annoyed. I pride myself on a practical knowledge of Russian, but I could not make sense of what the fellow was saying. It sounded exactly as though he was talking about a doll."
THE cab had stopped before a block of tall, dismal-looking apartment-flats.
"This isn't the prison," cried Gloria, her voice shrill with relief. "I demand to be taken to the prison."
The glow faded from her face at her husband's explanation.
"These are some sort of Government buildings. They join on to the prison at the back...Descend, my children. Still hugging your doll, Anna? It's time you grew up."
"I wasn't going to leave it on the platform for any of that mob to steal," she explained.
"That's the spirit. Gosh, the thing looks positively lifelike when she blinks her eyes. They'll think the English have synthetic children. Get out, Gloria."
Anna and Clifford waited on the pavement while Gloria dived into her bag and blindly powdered her nose. Her lashes were sprinkled and her brows semi-obliterated, but no one felt the details worthy of mention.
They followed the station official through the doorway and down a corridor. This opened out to a courtyard, in which was erected a second block of flats. When they had crossed to the enclosed building, Anna noticed that its door was made of iron. She was aware, too, of the institutional smell of the interior—the thick and unaired odour of crowded humanity.
They followed their guide up a flight of stone stairs, at the top of which they were checked by a peculiar architectural feature. At one point, the landing was built so close to the wall that only a person at a time could squeeze past.
"To avoid a rush," explained Cliff. "They hold film premier presentations here."
When, in turn, they had filed through, they were escorted down a short passage and into a large bare room. At one time it had been used apparently as a public building, for the dingy plaster walls were covered with pencilled calculations and scrawls, while the deal table was blotched with ink-stains. A pale red beam of sunlight fell on one corner of the floor, and the air was cold and sour.
"Thank God, it's not a cellar," said Gloria.
As though the remark were in bad taste, Cliff spoke quickly.
"Sorry. Modom only paid our 'en pension' terms, which do not include our best suites...We'll park over here, people. Let me take baby."
"No." Gloria hugged the child tighter. "I want to feel her."
Cliff looked at his beautiful, fashionable wife, clasping the expensively-fleeced bundle, as though he were adoring a Madonna and Child.
"We've got to grin and bear it for only a short time," he said. "There's nothing to be windy about. We're British subjects. And I hear the Commandant is a very decent bloke...Suppose we play 'Knock-Knock'?"
Although Anna wanted to protest, she found that the need to concentrate proved a mental tonic. They were in the middle of their travesty of a game, when the door opened to admit a charming dapper little man, in uniform.
He was so golden and fluffy that he suggested a chick hatched from an Easter egg. His cherubic face was pink and his lips red, as though rouged. Flashing a general smile, he singled out Gloria and addressed her exclusively.
She could understand nothing except the stressed admiration in his eyes; but Clifford and Anna learned that his name was Braun and he was the Commandant's secretary. His mission was to escort Mr. James to his chief.
Clifford rose in a leisurely manner, buttoned his coat and passed his hands over his smooth hair.
"England is now going to kick the Russian bear in the pants," he said. "Pity England is not more impressive. But if he annoys me, I'll show the cad my old school tie."
After he had gone the room seemed both empty and still. The baby slept, while Gloria and Anna gave up their pretence of keeping up appearances. Presently Gloria broke the silence.
"I used to think you precious, Anna."
Anna smiled faintly at the recollection that she had considered Gloria cheap. It was curious that two terms which were opposite in value, should each convey a reproach.
"You never thought of me at all," went on Gloria. "That was worse. And yet, somehow, I couldn't stand this without you!"
"I understand," said Anna.
"No, you can't. Cliff's gone. He's always going away from me. One time, he will not come back...Oh, heavens, what's that?"
They strained their ears to listen to a succession of dull thuds. It was difficult to locate the sounds, but they seemed to arise from somewhere in the basement.
"Pistol shots," whispered Gloria. "Down in the cellars."
"Don't be a fool." Anna spoke sharply. "It's only a motor back-firing. Keep still. You're waking the baby."
The mischief was done, for the child broke into a vigorous wail which belied her frail appearance. She was both spoilt and determined, with her mother's hysteria and her father's dislike of a makeshift. After more experienced handling, she knew that she was in the care of amateurs, and she broadcast her indignation to all the babes of the Empire.
In the midst of the uproar, the door was opened and little Braun bustled into the room.
"Oh, Madame," he expostulated, "the infant must not cry. There will be complaints."
Although she could not understand what he said, Gloria scented complaint and glared at him with brilliant blue eyes. Aware of her resentment, he turned from his beautiful lady, to confide in Anna.
"One has always to consider Authority. The People's Prosecutor will resent the noise. You will have heard, she has a—a prejudice. And strictly between ourselves, she is very drunk to-day."
"I understand," said Anna. "Thank you for the warning...When will Mr. James be back?"
Little Braun stole from the room, shaking his fair, feathery head.
"What was he yapping about?" demanded Gloria.
Her face grew pinched with worry when Anna enlightened her.
"Little fool," she said angrily. "How can I stop her? Did he explain that? Oh, why doesn't Cliff come back?"
Rejecting Anna's offers of help, she paced the room, pressing the child against her cheek.
The baby's wails rose to screams as heavy footsteps clumped down the passage. Some one who wore heavy nailed boots was approaching the room. Then the door opened and the People's Prosecutor looked through the aperture.
Her beautiful bestial face was inflamed—her eyes glazed. She stared stupidly, while Gloria pressed her hand over the baby's mouth, stifling its cries...
The moment seemed drawn out towards the limit of endurance. Suddenly, the tension snapped as the door banged and they realised that the intruder had gone.
"Did she recognise us?" asked Gloria in a terrified whisper.
"Of course not. She was too tight."
Anna spoke with assumed jauntiness, for she had noticed that Hirsch's eyes were fixed on the doll's borrowed dress. Unfortunately, it was distinctive, for it was made of pale-yellow Angora wool. As it had been worn by the baby during her stay at Hotel Dom, it might probably strike some chord of memory.
"Why did I have to pick that one?"
Even as she asked herself the question, Gloria gave a cry of welcome.
It was remarkable how the entrance of the insignificant man changed the situation. Once again, they were British subjects, with a legitimate grievance. Anna was reminded that the annoyance was only temporary, as Cliff spoke cheerfully.
"We shall soon be pushing off. I'll tell you all about it when I can hear myself speak. Too much competition at present. Let me take my daughter."
Gloria laughed defiantly as she transferred the baby to her husband's arms.
"Go on screaming, darling," she urged her. "Your father's here. Tell that horrible woman to go to hell."
"What woman?" asked Cliff.
His expression grew grave when Anna explained.
"I caught sight of her on the stairs," he said. "She looks nearly off her rocker. By the way, Anna, where's that draught I gave you?"
"What are you going to do to my baby?" cried Gloria, as Anna produced the small bottle and glass from her bag.
"I'm merely going to give her a drop of mild sedative," he told her. "It's quite harmless."
"I won't have her doped. And if that damnable woman dares to touch her, I'll tear her eyes out—I'll—"
She stopped, gasping—as Cliff slapped her face.
For a moment Anna was stunned with surprise. She thought that Gloria would fly at her husband and that there would be a free fight. The next second, however, Gloria pulled herself together and forced a laugh.
"That hurt me more than it hurt you," she said, rubbing her cheek.
"Sorry, darling," explained Cliff, "but you've got to remember this. If you hit a bobby at home, you'd be run in—and it's the same over here, only with knobs on. You must restrain yourself, for baby's sake—and the sake of all of us. Besides, I think a sleep will do her good."
Gloria made no further protest as he skilfully administered the minute dose.
"You are right," she whispered. "No one must notice her."
In her eyes flickered the terror of one who carries treasure through a country infested with thieves.
They waited anxiously while the baby's wails died down to whimpers. She was doing her best to put over a good performance, but circumstances were against her; her father held her more comfortably than her mother, and she was growing drowsy.
"Did you see the Commandant?" asked Anna in the first pause.
"Oh, yes." Cliff laughed. "I found out a packet. By the way, my Russian was all right. Great relief—that. The chap at the station was saying 'doll.'"
"What are you raving about?"
"That doll. Remember her dress that the soldiers pinched?"
"Yes, white muslin, embroidered in red, blue and yellow."
"Exactly. All dots and dashes. That was a cypher. Madame Lötsch sold us a pup all right. When I returned her letter, she hit on another way to cheat the Censor."
Suddenly, Anna remembered the light which had burned, all night, in Madame Lötsch's bedroom.
"What horrible treachery," she said.
"Honestly, I don't think she meant to implicate us," explained Clifford. "She expected us to get it through. But some one phoned through to the station, telling them to be on the look-out for it."
"You mean—some one betrayed us?" Anna's voice was hoarse with incredulous horror. "Who?"
"Some one who knew us and knew our plans," cried Gloria.
"No. I won't believe that. The hotel was probably full of spies."
"Anna's right," interposed Cliff. "Wholesale suspicion will get us nowhere. Any one could listen-in. I should say it was some one who connected Madame Lötsch with a bit of double-crossing. Besides, a cypher in embroidery might be a custom of the country."
"What did the Commandant say about it?" asked Anna.
"Oh, we got on quite well. He's a jolly old boy—pot-bellied, but a bit inscrutable about the eyes. I protested against our treatment and declared that the idea of a conspiracy was preposterous. He agreed that the cypher probably contains information about her family property, and that we have been used as tools. But he has to hold us until he gets the official report of the solution."
"Then let's pray they're good at crosswords," said Gloria. "As long as we're together, it doesn't much matter where we wait. They've messed up our journey and made us lose our train. But there's always to-morrow."
Anna could not accept Gloria's philosophy. This was a situation which she had imagined with different details—Conrad Stern beside her and a happy ending guaranteed. Although Cliff gave no clue to his real feeling, she was sure that he was keenly anxious about future developments.
She sat and smoked while she watched the pale-red beam of sunlight travel slowly across the wall. The baby was now sleeping heavily in her father's arms. Hitherto, Anna's views on children had been merely biological; but the child looked such a pitiful scrap that she felt a surge of protective instinct.
"We've got to bring her through," she decided.
At that moment, as though she read her thoughts, Gloria looked at her and their eyes met in a bond of understanding.
Again the door opened and Braun appeared.
"Please," he said, bowing formally to Clifford, while he gazed at Gloria.
"Back in a few minutes," Clifford told them. "Gloria, take care of your baby. And Anna, for the love of Mike, take care of my other baby, or she'll put us all on the spot."
In spite of his light tone, Anna realised that he was leaving her with a heavy responsibility. Gloria was about as dangerous as a stick of dynamite. In her hysterical condition, she was liable to blow up at any moment, and involve them all in grave consequences.
Her husband had not been absent for many minutes before she began to show signs of tension.
"Take her," she said, thrusting the baby into Anna's arms. "I can't sit still—waiting. I shall go mad. This thing is getting me down."
Her voice cracked with emotion and she began to pace the room as though she were distraught.
She stopped as the door was suddenly flung open and a massive flaxen-haired woman strode towards her.
"I know you," she said thickly in Russian. "You are that red-haired nurse."
As she listened, Anna realised that they were in the power of a hate-motivated drunkard, lusting for revenge. It was poor consolation to reflect that their problematical fate might be the text of questions in the House—when it was too late.
She felt helpless as a pedestrian lying in the path of a steam-roller which had transgressed the rule of the road. At that moment, nothing availed but might.
Then she became aware that the danger was double, for Gloria was quivering with suspicious fury.
"What's she saying?" she asked. "Is she threatening my baby?"
"Of course not," lied Anna. "She's being uncomplimentary about our appearance."
"I don't believe you. Why is she staring at my baby?"
Suddenly Anna realised that the situation was slipping beyond her control. If she could not restrain Gloria, all hope of liberty was lost. Even the slightest resistance to the People's Prosecutor would count as a technical offence and they would all be held on a charge of assault.
As she paused in indecision, she heard the sound of light brisk footsteps coming down the passage. Cliff was returning from his interview with the Commandant. Her only hope was to stave off the inevitable clash between the two women, until he was able to control his wife.
With a desperate effort, she tried to reason with the infuriated Hirsch.
"You are mistaken, madame. This lady is a very rich and influential Englishwoman. She has never been a nurse."
"You lie," growled the woman.
Pushing Anna aside, she shouted at Gloria.
"You are the red-haired nurse from the hospital in London. You were cruel to me. You cut off my beautiful hair. You starved me. I asked for meat and you gave me filthy broth."
The footsteps were drawing nearer—but Anna knew that they could not arrive in time. The blue blaze of Hirsch's eyes told that she was on the borderline of mania and sanity. While she accused Gloria, she kept staring at the sleeping baby.
Her own arms tightened around it, as the People's Prosecutor made a sudden plunge towards her.
"You took away my baby," she screamed. "You fooled me with a doll. Now I am going to kill your baby!"
Her words precipitated the crisis. Within a few seconds it fused, blazed up, and then was over.
Gloria did not need the aid of words to understand the threat to her child. As the People's Prosecutor advanced, she seized the heavy doll and swung it above her head to use it as a weapon. The action caused it to open its eyes, as though it were alive. At the transformation, Hirsch shifted her gaze from the still waxen-faced baby to the smiling, rosy doll. Before Gloria could strike a blow, she rushed forward and wrenched it from her grasp.
Laughing with drunken triumph, she pushed open the casement and hurled the doll out of the window. It crashed down on the court, and lay there, broken into fragments—in horrible imitation of a murdered child.
"You shall not fool me again," she said, as she snapped her fingers contemptuously at the sleeping baby. "That trash is not a baby. It's only a doll."
WHEN the People's Prosecutor had crashed from the room, Gloria gave a shaky laugh.
"Well—of all the spite-work. I never saw anything so savage. Almost as if she was really killing a child."
She shuddered as she looked down at the sprawl of broken limbs in the courtyard.
"For one moment, I thought—" she broke off and added, "But she never really meant to hurt my baby."
"Of course not," lied Anna. "She merely wanted to start a dog-fight. But you made it too easy by giving her the doll."
It was a flimsy attempt to make Gloria forget the maniac strength which had torn the doll from her grip, as though plucking a cherry; but Gloria was grateful for the subterfuge.
"Always humour a drunk," she said. "That is the motto of every refined home...I wish Cliff would show up."
Suddenly Anna remembered the sound of footsteps in the corridor.
"I thought I heard him coming," she said. "It was just before—"
"So did I," broke in Gloria. "The shock drove it from my mind. It all happened together. But I know he passed the door. He must have gone on...Oh, my God, where have they taken him? What are they doing to him? I shall never see him again—"
"Shut up," said Anna sharply. "We must keep quiet. She may come back."
She realised now that Gloria had understood the danger, in spite of her ignorance of Russian. It was useless to try to preserve a pretence of threadbare security, when an unguarded word or movement could puncture it.
The fear in her own eyes leaped to meet the fear in Gloria's eyes. Each stared at the other, while they strained their ears to listen. At any moment—from any quarter—they might expect a fresh test of their fortitude.
"How long have we been here?" asked Gloria.
"I don't know. It seems a lifetime. But it's not late."
"If only I were back in Birmingham now. I'd be happy anywhere—at a Methodist bun-fight, or buying a hat in a bargain basement. We don't know when we're well off. Anna, is it true that you came to Russia of your own free will?"
"I can hardly believe it myself."
"Well, perhaps you got a kick out of it. Any old way, it must be time for repairs."
Gloria drew out her flapjack and mirror and then gave a faint cry of horror.
"Gosh! I look like the last outpost, with the powder running low."
"You haven't got to pretend with me," Anna reminded her.
"I'm not." Gloria powdered her nose with unsteady fingers. "But there's no sense in not looking decent. In that way, I'm like the aristocrats in the French Revolution. I'd prefer to make a grand exit."
The next minute she startled Anna by a question.
"Anna, do you remember your Catechism?"
"Only 'N and M,'" confessed Anna.
"Well, god-parents and their duties come into it. Baby had crowds of god-parents. Crowds. They give presents, you know. But I want you to be an extra godparent. You must take care of her, because, if there's a split, I shall stick to Cliff."
Almost as though Gloria had prescience, the door opened while she was speaking. Walking noiselessly on rubber heels, little Braun entered. His face wore a mournful expression to prepare them for further bad news.
"Madame," he said, bowing to Gloria, "I am deeply grieved, but we have to retain you and your husband for just a little longer."
"My husband?" Gloria's eyes lit up. "Shall I be with him?"
"Yes, madame. He is coming now. We have to ask you to wait—elsewhere."
"Not in this lovely room? What a shame."
Gloria rushed to the door, nearly upsetting her husband in her excitement. His face looked sharp and worried, in spite of his air of unconcern, as though he were engaged in an important operation outside his usual sphere of business, and suspected an unfair deal.
"Anna," he said quietly, "I think they are going to give you the gate. Go straight to Stern and get him going. He's the one man to swing us out of this mess."
"I will," she promised.
"Good. Here are our passports. These fellers have a trick of forgetting to return them. We'll be back for dinner."
Gloria touched her baby's cheek tenderly with her finger before she took her husband's arm.
"My sweet," she murmured. "Hurry, Cliff, or we'll be late for cocktails."
As she looked behind her, to smile at Anna, she might have been any society girl prancing into some smart restaurant.
"Grand Exit"...Anna wondered when she would see her again.
Braun tapped her arm to attract her attention.
"Madame, you are not included in the order—for the present. You must go away at once. I have given the order to show you out discreetly. I am very concerned."
"About Madame James?" asked Anna anxiously.
"Naturally. But I am most concerned about the baby. It cannot stay in a prison. It must have its milk—its proper attention. You see, I am devoted to babies. I am a very proud father myself."
"You're married?" exclaimed Anna, looking at the little fop in faint surprise.
He was deeply offended by the suggestion.
"Oh, no, indeed. That is an outrageous notion. I am too young, too gay, to settle. But I have an establishment. Naturally. And I have two most affable infants...Please to follow, Madame."
It seemed to Anna that nothing could have been less discreet than their departure. The warder clumped along with noisy soles and advertised their progress by bellowing paternal inquiries about the baby. He stopped repeatedly—to blow his nose, to give directions to a sub-official, even to explain the object of the architecture when they squeezed through the narrow gap.
To Anna's fear-sharpened senses, every minute seemed about to precipitate some catastrophe—a foxy-faced official darting out to question her credentials, or the blind charge of an infuriated madwoman. She could hardly believe her good fortune when, at last, she was outside the prison.
In spite of her joy in freedom, she had a guilty sense of desertion when the taxi stopped before the Hotel Dom. Apprehensive of a barrage of questions, she entered the lounge. To her surprise, however, the hall-porter merely stared dully at her, without comment or any sign of surprise.
Feeling compelled to awaken his interest, she called his attention to herself by a fatuous remark.
"You see, I've not gone, after all."
"No, madame," he agreed indifferently.
She looked around her, but the vast place was dead as a stagnant pool.
"Conrad Stern?" she inquired.
"He is gone out."
Feeling suddenly limp, she flopped down on the nearest green velvet sofa, to ease the weight of the baby.
"Is madame staying at the hotel?" asked the porter. "Otherwise, it is not permitted to sit."
The objection reminded her of a new complication. She had no longer a room. It was only a question of re-registration, but the necessity for action made her realise her responsibility.
Clifford and Gloria were dependent on her for their release, while she felt overwhelmed by the necessity to make a decision over details.
"There's no time to waste over re-booking," she told herself. "It's more important to find Conrad. And I can't chase round with a baby."
Suddenly she realised that the solution of her problem was Lady Evans. She did not relish the prospect of asking a favour, especially as she was aware of atmospherics, before she entered the office. Directly she saw her ladyship, she realised that she was in a furious temper.
Something had upset her, just as she was working against time to complete arrangements for her welfare centre. The result was one of the outbursts with which she dynamited torpid committees.
"Go away," she shouted to Anna. "I've no time—no time!"
Like the porter, she seemed to have forgotten that Anna should have been on her way to England. Goaded to retaliation, the girl also raised her voice.
"I've brought you the baby," she said. "You promised Mrs. James to take care of her. They're both in prison."
Lady Evans's flushed face grew redder.
"This is a put-up job," she stormed. "I knew she meant me to bring her brat home. All the moaning about the long journey with no nurse. There's nothing between her and the women who dump their babies on doorsteps. But she won't play me for a sucker. Take it away at once."
"I can't," protested Anna. "And you can't bawl me out as if I was an unmarried mother. The Jameses are in danger and I must do something."
"Rubbish. There's no danger in Russia for people with legitimate business. I've been here months on an unpopular job, with no personal risk except bugs. I'll have nothing to do with other people's worries. I've too many of my own."
As Anna turned towards the door, she was alarmed by the baby's waxen face. Appalled by her own ignorance, she made another appeal to Lady Evans.
"Please look at her and tell me what to do."
Lady Evans took her first direct look at the child.
"Obvious," she snorted. "It's doped. I've a good mind to report it to the Society...Ivan, open the door."
Anna felt like a heroine of melodrama when she stood in the lounge, clasping the bundle to her heart.
"It only needs paper snow," she thought. "But there's plenty of the real stuff outside. It's no joke. I shall never laugh at this situation again."
Suddenly Lady Evans shouted to her from the open door of the office.
"You can leave it."
Thrusting the baby into her ladyship's arms, Anna hurried away. She was not happy about its welfare, but she had to stifle the thought that Lady Evans's philanthropy might be collective rather than individual, and to remind herself that the original source must be kindly.
When she inquired again about Stern's probable return, the hall-porter looked at her with sad, faded eyes.
"I know when they go out," he told her, "but no one can say when they will come back. Sometimes never. That is why you pay in advance."
Reminded of her lack of status, Anna went to the bureau to get fresh accommodation. She was definitely chilled to discover that their former rooms were no longer vacant and that while she was permitted to book an inferior apartment, no reservations were available for the Jameses.
"The hotel's not full," she told herself. "They know already. The place must be thick with spies."
She did not hear Stern's approach until he stood actually behind her. Since he had already assured himself of her identity, she was spared the inevitable futile question.
"What has happened?" he asked directly.
She noticed that his unshielded eyelid twitched as he listened, but before she finished, he showed no sign of strain.
"It's nothing but a routine formality," he explained. "Madame Lötsch's information undoubtedly concerned family property. It's natural she wanted her daughter to benefit, since she had decided on suicide. That cypher was a dramatic form of will...We'll go and interview the Commandant at once and get them released."
Anna's spirits rose as she accompanied him to the entrance.
"I could almost believe you've met your elusive man," she said.
"As a matter-of-fact," he told her, "I have. Henceforth—I am at your service."
"IT seems a hundred years since I was here," said Anna, as she and Stern crossed the courtyard towards the enclosed block of buildings. "I wonder where they've put Cliff and Gloria." She stared up at the grimed wall, and added, "Perhaps one of these windows is theirs."
"Unimportant," remarked Stern. "They won't be there much longer."
"Confident. Markovitch is known to be pro-English. He is also usually broke, so he will be ready to discuss finance."
As though to justify his optimism, they were conducted, with the minimum of delay, to the Commandant's room. It was not the conventional office. A dingy and hollowed divan showed signs of constant use. There was a carpet on the floor and peacock-blue velvet window-curtains, edged with ball-fringe, besides a bowl of dyed immortelles under a glass shade. Anna noticed, too, the additional details of the photograph of a pleasant-faced matron—embracing two children—on the Commandant's desk, fur-lined slippers, and a thermos flask.
Markovitch rose from his chair and advanced to meet them. He was a stout, genial man, of the type which formerly claimed likeness to King Edward VII., by the combination of a beard with a Homburg hat.
Although his reception of Anna paid tribute to her sex, she was aware of only a surface show of geniality. Like Clifford James, she was vaguely repulsed by his eyelids, which looked almost too heavy to open fully.
When Stern explained that he called on behalf of Mr. and Mrs. James, he immediately expressed admiration of the English nation in general, and of Gloria in particular.
"A beautiful lady of distinction and fashion," he said. "I am distressed that she is involved in an affair of such gravity."
"I should describe it as an unfortunate incident," remarked Stern. "Perhaps kindness to Madame Lötsch was indiscreet, in the circumstances. But I presume that their detention is merely a formality and that you will arrange for them to leave immediately."
As the Commandant said nothing, he added, "Of course, it is understood that there will be—administrative expenses. If you will allow me, I will arrange the matter with your secretary."
The Commandant crossed his thumbs over his big stomach and almost veiled his eyes with his leaden lids.
"The matter is not quite so simple," he said. "I regret I must detain Monsieur and Madame James, pending further inquiries."
The Commandant's shrug signified "Indefinitely."
Watching him with anxious eyes, Anna could tell that Stern was nonplussed by the check. The interview was not running on the lines familiar by precedent. When at last he spoke, his voice had lost some of its suavity and there was a gleam behind his monocle.
"I should prefer to settle this matter amicably, between ourselves, rather than appeal to my Government. You are holding two British subjects of good standing, on a frivolous charge."
The Commandant shook his head.
"I fear," he said, "that your compatriots have placed themselves outside the protection of any government. Perhaps you are not aware that the charge is—espionage?"
For a second, Stern stared blindly, like a dead man, withered by the shock. Almost in the same moment, his facial muscles responded to his will and his features hardened to his former nonchalant mask. Only the closest observer would have detected that he had been off guard; and even while she paid homage to his self-control, doubts disturbed Anna's mind.
"He's an accomplished actor," she thought.
She asked herself how it was possible to place absolute confidence in so veiled and complicated a personality, as he regarded the Commandant with arrogant eyes.
"Fantastic," he sneered.
"Unfortunately not," said Markovitch. "From a reference in the cypher to our new aircraft factory, we gather that it is a key to an existing document...Another government would pay for such information, and it will be sold to the highest bidder. Undoubtedly, Madame Lötsch intended her only daughter—now resident in England—to reap some of this benefit."
He went on talking, but Anna was too overcome to listen. It was incredible that the hidden horror which she had feared, had actually gripped her friends in its slimy tentacles. During their few hours of mutual strain, new bonds had been forged. Their fate was now identical with hers.
"I must stand by them—whatever happens," she resolved, although her mouth grew dry at the prospect. As far as she could judge, the Jameses were implicated in a deed which placed them outside the pale of ordinary citizenship, and for which the penalty was a bullet at dawn. They were caught in the act of smuggling the cypher out of the country, while Madame Lötsch—who could clear them of the charge—had thoughtfully removed herself from the sphere of testimony.
Once again she realised that they were up against the time element, as Markovitch spoke.
"I regret that after to-day, their case will be out of my hands. As you have heard this—Fleischer"—his pause signified contempt—"will have absolute control. I will not disguise from you the fact that his judgments are hasty."
"While you would sift the testimony to its correct solution," remarked Stern suavely. "I am sorry that you will not be able to arbitrate. As the husband of a good and devoted wife"—he glanced towards the family group—"you would have sympathy with Mrs. James."
Encouraged by the compliment, Markovitch expanded in praise of the matrimonial state.
"My wife has made me the man you see," he said modestly. "Before then, I was a poor, sickly weed, such as no woman would look at twice. Between ourselves, I had a secret vice. I was inebriate. I had lost all ambition to rise...But now—" He slapped his chest. "Now I am only rarely drunk. Of course, sometimes I am a naughty boy with ladies. Naturally."
Stern showed no trace of boredom or impatience while he listened to the recital of Markovitch's triumphs. He gave a perfect imitation of a man of the world condescending to a fellow clubman who had exceeded the limit of good taste. He seemed to have forgotten the fate of his friends while he indulged his sardonic sense of humour.
At first, Anna was infuriated by the loss of priceless time. Presently, however, she began to get a glimmer of the drift of his encouragement. It was established that ladies were expensive—which entailed the discussion of finance.
After the manner of a strip-tease, he skilfully whisked veil after veil from his bribe, until it stood revealed as a definite and tempting spot-offer. In his turn, Markovitch placed his cards upon the table.
"I would help you, if I could—gladly, but I have not full power. That will come...The utmost I could do, would be to authorise their release from this prison, on technical grounds...But that would not help them, for they would be detained at the frontier. And they could not escape by air or sea, for they would not be accepted as passengers, without those credentials which I cannot sign."
Stern's shrug was a tacit acceptance of defeat.
"The best you can do is poor," he said, "but beggars cannot be choosers. Once my friends are at liberty, we can get legal advice before the arrival of—this Fleischer to-morrow. Will you ring for your secretary and we will settle the matter at once?"
Horrified by the threat of immediate action, the Commandant entrenched himself in the future.
"Sychas," he said. "First, the Order of Release must be prepared. It must state the charge and the reason for this technical and temporary liberty, which will take time. And I cannot wait now to sign it, as I have an appointment with a lady."
"When will it be ready?" asked Stern.
"Ah. Let me reflect. I am going to take the lady to a cocktail-bar. Very private and discreet, you understand. Afterwards, I must go home to my wife, to show her I am a good boy and love her only. When I have finished my dinner, I will return to this office, and then I will sign the Order of Release."
"At what time?"
He rang his bell and bowed them from his room.
"The best we can do," remarked Stern bitterly when they were in the outer office. "Let us find out if the secretary knows the current value of the rouble."
When the dapper Braun appeared, in response to the message, he grasped the situation immediately and began to bubble over with initiative.
"It is all very unfortunate," he bleated. "Naturally, I know about his appointment. He may keep his promise to you—or he may not. She is an exacting lady...She is also a friend of mine. If I met her in the courtyard and told her that the Commandant was not at liberty, she would accept me as her substitute."
"Naturally. What woman would not prefer the graceful buck to the elephant?" asked Stern satirically.
Although she was agonised by the threat of her friends' fate, Anna could not help seeing the humour of the situation when little Braun unconsciously began to posture like a dancing master.
"Of course, it will be expensive," he said hopefully. "I cannot afford cocktails myself. And the lady would require a present to go back to her apartment—and stay there. Otherwise, she may come and call for the Commandant again. But my plan is this."
He grew pantomimic as he explained.
"A few quick ones. Click, click. I return to the office. I prepare the Order of Release. That is simple, for I have only to fill in the details on a form. I get the Commandant to sign it before he leaves the office for dinner...I guarantee to place it in your hands if you will be here, privately, at six o'clock."
Stern's tense expression relaxed as he shook Braun heartily by the hand.
"Excellent," he said. "My friend, you will rise in the world. And I promise you we shall not quarrel over the price of cocktails..."
Wearing a guilty grin, little Braun skipped back to his chief's office, where the Commandant was spraying scent on to his beard. He had taken from a glass a white camellia with browned petals, and placed it in his buttonhole. His preparations for conquest complete, he dropped down into an easy-chair and sighed.
"I am going to meet a beautiful lady. Naturally, I think of another beautiful lady who will drink no more cocktails."
"The English lady." Braun sniffed in sympathy and changed a dangerous subject. "Why do you always favour the English, sir?"
"Because England was my refuge when I was a political exile. Out of pure sympathy, one gave me a job in his shop. It was simple. I had but to walk up and down—up and down—all day, and pretend...It was a dismal place and everything was monotonous. I could not have endured it, except that I was always drunk."
"But how could you afford that?"
"Ah, fortunately, so very little spirit makes my brain cloud in a golden haze. I am not like the English, who can drink eight glasses without an effect. With me, very soon, there come beautiful dreams. When I am drunk I am a very great man—the greatest man of all."
"You will be...But, in England, how did you manage to keep your job if you were always drunk?"
Markovitch settled himself deeper in his chair. He meant to take a little nap while he waited, for his ladies always called for him.
"I had a system," he explained sleepily. "Consider the whistle—the bell—the telephone. You know how those who are trained to attend to these will respond to the summons, even when asleep...I was such a one—a slave to a habit. However deeply sunken I was, there was a word which could always waken me."
"And what was that word?"
The Commandant began to rumble in his beard.
"Now is that not odd?" he said. "For the moment it has escaped my memory. It is so many years ago. But it will return. I am like the elephant. I never forget."
"I THOUGHT you said you were confident," said Anna reproachfully, as she and Stern crossed the courtyard of the prison. "But they're still there."
"Still there," he agreed stonily. "So the obvious thing is to forget them...until six."
"Who could forget! I'm nearly frantic. Suppose that little secretary lets us down?"
"We must assume he will not."
"All the same, I've a hunch we ought to have stuck to the Commandant."
"It's fifty-fifty. We can bank on neither. But Braun's offer gives us another two hours to play with."
As he hailed a decrepit taxi, Anna protested.
"Let's walk back and get some air. I can still smell the prison."
"No time," he told her. "There's much to be done."
Although his words implied further negotiations, for the first time she lost entire faith in him. As the cab jolted over the frozen ruts of muddy snow she was overwhelmed by the hopelessness of the position.
"Even if we get them out of prison," she asked, "what's the good? We can't leave Russia, with every way barred."
"Except one. There's still Lady Evans."
Anna laughed bitterly.
"You've picked on the last person to help us," she said. "She wouldn't even lend me money, for fear her local reputation should be smirched."
Stern made no comment and they sat in silence while the cab jolted onwards. Presently he glanced at her face, which was set in lines of fatalistic despair.
"What are you thinking of?" he asked.
"I am thinking that you are a long way from Hammersmith Broadway."
"You mean, my bones will probably rest here?"
"No." He struck the seat. "Oh, Anna, why had you to stay on in Russia? You've made everything so much more complicated...If we fail I want you to promise me something. You must leave to-morrow by the noon express."
"Will you come with me?"
"But I'm to go. What a charming prospect for me when I'm back in England. Listen."
She changed her voice to a libellous imitation of a B.B.C. announcer.
"'This is London. We have a distinguished visitor in town to-night. Miss Anna Stephanovitch, who has just returned from Russia, will now come to the microphone to tell you about her recent experiences.'...Now, listen to me broadcasting. 'Hallo, every one. I've had a simply marvellous thrill. My three best friends were arrested. Two were positively trapped, and the third stood by them, true to our highest tradition of British loyalty and honour. Fortunately, I was able to get out in time. But when, later, I heard that they were all shot, I was proud to remember that I am English too...And now I must say how marvellous it is to be home, and that after my brief experience of a foreign prison I can truthfully say our policemen are wonderful.'"
Anna stopped her affected ranting to add in her natural voice:
"That's what it would be like. Do you think I could ever forgive myself? Or ever forget?"
The cab stopped before the Hotel Dom and she reluctantly mounted the flight of steps. When she passed through the revolving doors, again she experienced the demoralising sensation of being trapped. She was back in an atmosphere of treachery and suspicion—the hunting-ground of spies. Two were already victims—and she feared what the future might hold for all.
"Sit over here," she urged, when they entered the lounge.
Although it was deserted, she had the uneasy sense of an ambush. Leading Stern across to a remote green velvet settee, she spoke to him in a whisper.
"I don't know your plan—but don't tell Lady Evans anything. I'm sure she will betray you."
"Oh, my dear." His voice was impatient. "Are you asking me to believe she's a spy?"
"No. But she may feel it is her duty to inform the authorities. She's bound to stand in with them, because of her welfare work. She's dangerously biased."
"Hush. Here she comes."
They heard Lady Evans before she burst out of her office, followed by a thick-set man with a harassed face. Although they could not catch her actual words, it was evident that she was scolding him; but he appeared to be enduring her abuse philosophically, on the principle that his back was broad and that another minute would find him outside.
"Captain Riley of the Polar Beam," explained Stern. "One of her line."
When her visitor had ducked through the doors, Lady Evans stamped across the lounge, muttering to herself, while her small dark eyes glittered with temper.
With a remembrance of the baby, Anna dared to intercept her, only to be practically pushed aside.
"Too busy now," she snapped, as she hurried back to her office.
"You've chosen an opportune moment for your appeal," said Anna, when she returned to the settee. "Wait for me here. I must see what's happened to Gloria's baby."
She need not have worried about the child, for in spite of her personal worry, Lady Evans had made every arrangement for her comfort. Tucked up in a cot in her ladyship's own bedroom—with Marie back on duty—she was still asleep, although her face had lost its doped look.
Anna hurried back to the lounge, to find Stern standing outside the office.
"We must risk it," he told her. "There's no time to lose."
Without knocking, he pushed open the door and entered the room. Lady Evans, who was sitting at her desk, scowled and shook her head, but he paid no heed to her signals.
"I hear the Polar Beam didn't sail yesterday," he remarked casually. "Was it engine trouble?"
"Sabotage," snapped Lady Evans. "What do you want?"
Stern glanced towards the inner office, where Ivan was pounding a typewriter.
"The matter is private," he said. "Will you send your typist away?"
"I will not. I have no secrets." She added in a lower tone, "He understands English very imperfectly...What news of the wretched Jameses?"
"They're still in prison. The charge is espionage."
Because she was genuinely shocked, Lady Evans was furious.
"The fools. I've no patience with them. I've been here months to their days and kept clear of trouble. Well—they've brought it on themselves. No one can help them."
"If we don't, they'll be shot," Anna reminded her.
Ignoring the girl, Lady Evans turned to Stern.
"Have you any suggestion? Have you rung up the English Embassy at Leningrad?"
"Unfortunately, they've placed themselves outside national intervention," he told her. "Of course, something could be arranged, if we had time, but their fate will be settled by Fleischer. He's a fanatic and famed for his rushed executions. Arrest and administrative penalty in the same day."
"I know, I know. It's damnable. But why have you come to me?"
"Because you can save them."
"They must sail to-night in your ship, the Polar Beam."
Instead of exploding, Lady Evans sat and frowned while she pressed her teeth with her forefinger. When at last she shook her head, Anna was the more disappointed, because she knew that a reasoned decision would not be put lightly aside.
"God knows I'm English," she said, "but I have to consider the broad issues. If anything goes wrong, I should be involved too. It is a question of the most valuable life, and that is my own. I dare not take the risk."
"But you can't let them be shot," pleaded Anna. "They're not criminals."
"No, dupes. And what is their special claim to life? They're the average well-to-do couple who spend their income on themselves and do nothing to help the world's troubles. That man has a real talent for organisation which is wasted on spoiling his own little family. What is their value to the nation?"
"There's a baby," said Anna.
"She'll merely grow up like her mother—another pampered female who'll live only for her own pleasure. No, their loss would be merely sentimental."
"But human relationships are everything in life."
"You think so? Then where do I stand? I've a husband at home who's always glad to see me go away, to get some peace; but God knows he's glad to see the cross old woman back. I've a family of four, to that girl's one chick. I slang them, but they're fond of me. And I've five dogs—bless them—who'll give me the best welcome of all...I WANT to go home to them."
There was a slight huskiness in Lady Evans's voice, but she cleared her throat and continued aggressively:
"All this is wishy-washy sentiment. I'm coming to the real fact. My work. I've made myself responsible for scores of destitute children, but I've not yet been able to put my homes on a secure financial basis. I have to wait for my husband's death. So if anything happened to me there would be extra pain and hunger in the world...I'm morally bound to put my own valuable life before those of a charming young couple who leave the dirty jobs to the cranks...They call us that because we're clearing up the mess made by the real abnormal people—people without normal feelings of humanity. If every one gave their children and animals a fair deal, we cranks would be out of work—and glad of it."
To her secret dismay, Anna found herself appreciating Lady Evans's views, because they expressed her own earlier resentment against the Jameses. At the same time, it was a shock to her when Stern accepted a facile defeat.
"You refuse to help them?" he asked.
"Definitely and absolutely."
"Then there is no more to be said."
"I'm glad you realise it. I have nothing further to add. And I've no time to spare...Shut the door as you go out."
WHEN they were back in the lounge Anna looked apprehensively at Stern. To her surprise, instead of showing disappointment, he seemed chiefly concerned with finding his cigarette-case empty.
"What do we do now?" she asked.
"Have you washed out Lady Evans?"
"For the present. Her mind is made up. Further argument would only make her more mulish."
Stern looked at the cracked gilt clock, supported by cupids, and added, "I shall have to return to the prison soon to collect your friends."
She was vaguely chilled by his choice of possessive adjective, which made his share in the proceedings appear impersonal. It was almost as though he had lost interest in their fate.
"What's the good of liberty to them when they're not free?" she asked.
"They might be more comfortable in a hotel than a prison."
"When do you start? I'm coming too."
"In forty minutes' time. I'll meet you here. I have to put through a call."
He walked towards the telephone booth while Anna watched him with troubled eyes. She had lost the sense of partnership which had helped to compensate for the racking suspense of their experience. Conrad seemed to be retreating from her, as though he had led her on to a certain point—only to withdraw.
After a solitary meal in the restaurant, she returned to the lounge, where she sat and smoked feverishly for lack of occupation. Presently she heard Lady Evans shouting to some one in peremptory tones.
In her dulled state, at first she did not connect the name with herself, until she realised that Lady Evans was standing at the open door of the office and beckoning her inside.
"I've something to ask you," she said, as Anna approached. "Shut the door. We don't want to be overheard."
Anna glanced towards Ivan, who stood and checked a pile of papers with moistened finger and thumb, as though to demonstrate that he wasted no fraction of his working hours, even while he waited. He looked an unpleasing person in the unshaded light which revealed the rind of his pitted skin and his deep-set cunning eyes.
"Do you wish to speak to me privately?" asked Anna, resenting his presence.
"Yes," replied Lady Evans. "I must know something. Can you vouch for this Conrad Stern?"
"Of course," said Anna quickly. "He is my friend."
"What do you know of his antecedents?"
"Only what he tells me."
"And that amounts to nothing...You had better hear what Ivan has to say."
Ivan stopped in the midst of his counting, as though his employer had pressed a switch.
"Her ladyship has been so gracious to me," he said, "that I felt it my duty to tell her what is being whispered everywhere in the hotel. I felt she should be put on her guard. It is rumoured that the other English visitors have been arrested. So naturally it is not pleasant to see a young English miss going about and confiding her trust in the man who betrayed her friends."
"Who?" asked Anna incredulously.
"Conrad Stern. He is a spy."
Even while she was conscious of her lack of indignation, Anna attributed it to her fatigue. She told herself that it had been a long day of strain and disappointment. She had not eaten or rested properly. Before her yawned a void—when she dared not look an hour ahead.
"The idea is farcical," she said, speaking pointedly to Lady Evans. "I am surprised you allow such a charge to be made against an English person."
Ivan shrugged his shoulders.
"It is always thankless to try to save people from their friends," he remarked. "Let me see if I can find a way to convince you."
He opened the door and thrust his greasy head through the aperture.
"Yes," he crowed triumphantly. "He is returned to the lounge. Now will you please observe him carefully? He is taking a packet of cigarettes from the cigar-stand."
Although she could not understand the object of the experiment, Anna felt acutely nervous as she watched Conrad. All he did, however, was to fill his case with cigarettes and throw the empty carton away.
"Did any one see him pay for those cigarettes?" whispered Ivan hoarsely.
"No," replied Lady Evans. "His back was turned towards us."
"It does not matter. If he is a spy, the hotel is making him no charge for anything. You understand, he can have the best of everything for nothing. Naturally, he will not be concerned with prices...So we will ask him the price of those cigarettes."
"He'd know that," objected Lady Evans. "He must be used to buying them."
"Pardon, your gracious ladyship. These are what you call English gasps. In England their price is one shilling, in your coinage, and they sell them in the shops here for the equivalent of one shilling and tenpence. But—you must pay two shillings for them at the hotel cigar-stand, because the demand for them is so very limited...Now do you see my little trap?"
His eyes glittered as he whispered, "He is coming this way to speak to the young English miss."
Anna noticed sub-consciously that although they had shared the fraternity of the Komsomol, he addressed her no longer as "Comrade." It was one more insignificant trifle which served to mark the drift of a turgid current.
Her heart began to beat unevenly with suspense as Conrad advanced towards her. Before he could speak, Ivan intercepted him.
"Excuse," he said, "but I see you smoke my most favourite brand of cigarettes."
Conrad Stern raised his brows to register the lie, as, without comment, he offered his case to the youth.
Ivan selected one with dirty fingers.
"Thanks," he said. "Please, what is their price?"
Anna thought that Stern hesitated before he replied, as though he heard the rustle of the straw which conceals the pit. In sudden panic, she tried to warn him of Ivan's trap.
"They're probably charged," she said.
"No," corrected Ivan. "Cigarettes from the stand must always be paid for. There is no credit for these. I would like to buy some of these myself. How much have you paid for them, please?"
"One and ten," replied Stern. "But the price varies. I could get them in Hammersmith Broadway for a bob."
Anna could not respond to his smile when he spoke to her.
"Starting in ten minutes."
Ivan watched him stroll away and then spluttered in his triumph.
"You see. He did not know their price here is two shillings, because he did not pay. It is proved he is a spy."
Lady Evans lit a cigarette and puffed away fiercely.
"No," she said after a pause, "I cannot definitely state Q.E.D. He slipped up, but he just saved himself by saying the price varied."
"She put him on his guard," said Ivan accusingly.
"That's enough, Ivan. Get back to your typing, if you want to earn your bonus."
When the student had gone, Lady Evans spoke to Anna without her usual aggression.
"Stern's attractive, although he is no beauty. The pity is all the bad eggs have charm. They used to swarm round me when I was a girl, but I knew they couldn't be after my face, so I married a plain John with as much money as myself. If I hadn't, I'd probably be in my grave now, working off an overdose of arsenic."
She patted the girl's arm and added, "Play for safety with him."
"I trust him," said Anna quickly.
"I don't. He seems to have the unlucky touch. Your friends are still in gaol."
"We'll bring them back."
"I don't expect to see them. All I know is I have their baby wished on me. A woman of my age saddled with a child on a long train journey. That reminds me I shall want its things. When you go out, see what luggage you can collect from the station."
Anna mechanically accepted the commission, chiefly because of its casual wording. "When you go out" suggested shopping or a walk with some innocuous companion. But when she was actually inside the taxi, on her way to the gaol, she was conscious of the restraint in Stern's manner, as though a new barrier had been erected between them.
"We'd better smoke," he said, passing her his case. "By the way, Ivan staged rather an elaborate lie to cadge a cigarette. It had almost a conspiratorial effect."
His eyes were fixed upon her and she felt her colour rise.
"Much ado about nothing," she said, trying to cover her confusion with a laugh.
"I agree. But, at this stage, talking gets us nowhere. We'll smoke."
At that moment Anna felt that she was sharing the cab with a stranger. The need to clear the air of the miasma of wholesale suspicion made her suddenly reckless. Although Lady Evans had advised caution, she spoke vehemently, without any thought of consequence.
"Conrad, we must trust each other. Cliff and Gloria are counting on us. We can't fail them. I don't know what you mean to do. You won't explain—it's all utterly hopeless and perplexing. But I do trust you. I must."
"Isn't that understood?" Conrad smiled at her with his old familiar charm. "If we didn't trust each other, we shouldn't be here together, on the same errand. But there is one person I would rather you did not trust."
"Yes. His record is not good. How did you guess I meant Ivan?"
"Because he has just warned me against you."
Stern's laughter swept away Anna's last doubt.
"So that's why you were afraid of me," he said. "However, he has served as a distraction...Anna, do you realise that in this short time much has happened. Either Braun took out the lady—or the Commandant. We shall soon know which."
"Are we there?" asked Anna as the cab stopped in an unlocalised darkness.
Stern opened the window and looked out.
"Yes," he said. "The fool has brought us round to the other entrance. Sorry. It looks grim, but we cannot waste time going round."
Although she could see only a glimmer of frozen water and the bulk of a tower blocking out the sky, the incident was unfortunate, for it sapped Anna's remnant of self-control. She had the feeling that, with every step, she was drawing nearer to an inevitable climax. Ever since she had first seen the People's Prosecutor striding across the road, she had been haunted by the threat of the prison. She had striven to drive it from her mind, but at odd moments she had dark flashes of hidden horror.
Stern noticed her recoil as he rang the bell, and when the door was opened he took her arm and almost dragged her inside. She heard the thud of the door and the clash of the bolts as she was hurried down the badly-lit passage. In spite of the hot-water pipes, the stone flags were cold underfoot, while, to her fancy, the air held the chill of mould.
"I can smell the dungeons," she whispered.
"Imagination," said Stern sharply. "Pull yourself together."
"Are Cliff and Gloria here?"
"Of course not. They're in the other part. You'll be seeing them soon."
Anna did not believe him. All the same, it was a great relief when they passed through a low doorway and found themselves walking on rubber flooring, while distempered walls replaced whitewashed stone.
In spite of its gaunt institutional appearance, she felt that they had reached civilisation after barbarism, when they were left to wait in the outer office of the Commandant's quarters. In a few minutes the door of the private room was opened and Braun entered.
The first glance at his flushed and guilty face told them that he had failed, even before Stern spoke.
"Has the Commandant signed?"
Braun shook his head despondently.
"Unfortunately, no," he replied.
"What no one could expect...Everything went according to plan. I met the lady and we had cocktails. I parted from her and returned here on time. I was told, the Commandant is still here. I prepared the paper and took it to the Commandant's room. And what did I find?"
Braun threw out his hands in a tragic gesture and repeated his question.
"What did I find? The Commandant asleep on the divan—drunk as a sailor."
ANNA received the news in silence. It seemed to her that she had known it all the time. The net of treachery was too subtly spun and too farspread to allow its victims to escape. She had been brought to the prison on one more fool's errand.
Stern also accepted the blow with an impassive face.
"How drunk is he?" he asked.
"Deaf and dumb and blind," replied Braun. "He cannot stir a foot or a finger."
"Is he often like this?"
"But very seldom."
"Where is he?"
"In his private room...No, you must not go in. Only I am privileged."
Stern paid no deference to official restrictions. Pushing the little secretary aside, he went into the inner room.
Within the minute he returned.
"Hopeless," he said. "He's like a log."
The description was inapt, for even as he lay—muscle-bound and glazen-eyed—the Commandant's mind was foaming with brilliant dreams. He brought to intoxication a certain quality denied to the majority of drinkers. Each bout was an orgy of imagination when the liquor was the instrument of release, which stunned his conscious self and liberated his sub-conscious ego.
The submerged Markovitch—who now floated on top—was a Titan with limitless scope and absolute power. He was the true expression of the man's ambition. In his normal condition, he nursed a sense of chronic grievance when he resented his secondary position. He was merely a governor of a gaol—metaphorically dangling a bunch of keys, like a housewife—instead of dipping his hands in the blood of a wholesale purge.
This evening, in his alcoholic Vision Beatific, the scales were re-adjusted and he wreaked his vengeance on a pigmy universe. The world lay at his feet, like a map in bas-relief, studded with tiny lighted cities—frail as the filigree buildings of Swiss toymakers. One by one he trampled upon them, grinding the brittle scraps under his heel and extinguishing each spark. Calcutta, Paris, Tokio, Budapest—he stamped them to powder, while shooting-stars burst resplendently in his exultant brain.
But there was one city which he contrived to spare, even at the height of his frenzy. Some instinct warned him to walk carefully whenever he was in the neighbourhood of London. A voice from far away reminded him that the English were his friends. Long ago they had given him the refuge of a strange dark shop, without substance or reality, which was but the nebulous back-cloth for his dreams.
Therefore, he had incurred obligations to the nation and his honour compelled repayment. Somewhere—outside in the dimness—were two English persons to whom he had pledged his aid...seychas...
Meanwhile he wrecked the world of men and blew out the stars of the Creator, one by one.
Stern saw only a drunk man with puffed-out lips.
Little Braun continued to lament.
"It was my fault. Just before, he was telling me of a time when he was always drunk. I should have been warned, for I understand how it is. Certain things are forbidden in my diet—or I should become a little tub, but after I have talked of them, my lips begin to water and my tongue goes round and round. And then—I have to eat them...It was the same with him. When his lady did not come to distract him, he fell into temptation. I gave bad advice. I—"
"How long?" interrupted Stern.
The question restored the secretary to his customary cheerfulness.
"He will sleep it off during the night. To-morrow morning he will awake sober and able to sign. I pass you my word."
"I shall be here early. Expect me at eight...Come, Anna."
Anna roused herself from her stupor.
"Can I see my friends?" she asked.
"I regret it is impossible, Madame. Sleep well. The night will soon pass."
"Give them my love. Tell them I came—or they'll think we've forgotten them."
"Come, Anna," repeated Stern sharply.
When they were outside the prison, Anna remembered Lady Evans's commission.
"I must go to the station to get the Jameses' luggage," she said wearily.
"We'll have coffee first," decided Stern. "You look all in."
She was scarcely conscious of the locality until they turned down a connecting side lane which led into a street lined with tall buildings. Although most of the business premises were in darkness, many a lighted basement testified that the population had begun its nocturnal recreation.
Stern helped her down the partially frozen steps of an area and through a curtained door which opened directly into an underground dive. It was small and smoky and held a suggestion of secrecy, as though the heated atmosphere had germinating properties and was thick with the spawn of whispers.
"Is this a respectable place?" asked Anna.
"No," replied Stern. "That does not matter. You are with me."
"Aren't you respectable?"
He answered her question obliquely.
"I am very well known here. Fortunately." He met her miserable eyes and added, "Don't look like that. This time to-morrow we shall be at sea."
"Promises. I've heard so many."
"And I promised you coffee."
"It doesn't matter. Nothing matters while Cliff and Gloria are in that horrible place."
"For only a short time."
"I've heard that too...No, don't leave me here. This place looks disillusioned—to say the very least."
"I must go," said Stern, rising from the table. "I'll order the coffee. There's some one I must see, but I will be back in a minute or so."
Anna shrugged her shoulders when Stern disappeared through a dusty reed curtain. Tortured by self-reproach, she believed herself indifferent to any personal risk; yet she started nervously when the rings slid again over the pole and a man stepped into the room.
She stared at him incredulously as she recognised the magnetic dark-blue eyes and Viking beard.
"Otto," she cried.
"Anna. My dear, my very dear."
In spite of the pit between them, she was stirred by the sincerity of his greeting. It held the camaraderie of the old Komsomol days and made her aware that, lately, she had been missing the warm contact of humanity.
"Otto," she repeated. "How did you come here?"
"I followed you," he explained. "Ivan told me that you had gone out with Stern. Since then I've trailed you. But I have so much to say. My dear, I am so ashamed to remember that I borrowed your money to buy a fur coat for Olga...poor little Olga. I have asked about her, but no one can tell me anything."
"I heard she was in prison. But I heard that you were there too."
"I was. I am only released to-day, through influence...of course, it was a shameful business for me. I admit my fault, but in the main I was a dupe. I accepted graft but I did not understand its exact implication. It has always been my curse—this wretched lack of money."
Against her will she listened, even while she reminded herself that he was a spellbinder. She noticed that his features were sharper and that his hands, although recently manicured, were of an unhealthy fungoid whiteness.
"We quarrelled over Olga," he said, "because I could not make you understand. A man needs more than one woman. There is the one he loves and respects—she is apart. There is the good comrade—the girl who shares his sport. There is the intellectual—the friend who sharpens his brain. Lastly, there is the little girl who is—all the rest. Any woman will serve. Olga. Any one...Will you forgive me, Anna?"
Anna began to laugh hysterically.
"You ask me to forgive you for trifles, Otto. Do you know what they say? That you are a spy. That you've sold us all."
"No." He almost shouted in his vehemence. "That is a hideous lie. It is foolish too. If I had done this damnable thing you would not be free now. You would be in prison. But you will not be free much longer. That is why I came."
He lowered his voice to a whisper. As she listened it seemed to Anna that the semi-saturated walls must be absorbing yet another secret horror.
"You are in real danger, Anna. Stern is a spy. He has started his operations with your English friends. But he is out to get a bigger haul—the rich Lady Evans and you."
Anna's brain began to cloud.
"I don't believe you," she said.
"You must. I can help you. Have you money?"
"Yes. But I don't trust you."
"Because I've been too frank with you? I've always been frank, haven't I? That was why we quarrelled. I've let you see the worst of me, while you don't know the best. You must trust me...I will arrange for a car to-night to take us over the frontier. Bring your passport and I will get you through. I always wangled it before. Didn't I?"
Because she had to admit the truth of so much that he said, Anna began to consider the unproven part. If Otto were sincere, he offered her a chance of escape. But this time he held her up for so much more than money. Acceptance of his word involved the loss of her spiritual capital—her illusions, her faith, her love.
"Ivan will bring you my message to the hotel when all is ready," went on Otto.
"I can't trust him."
"Why? Because yesterday he was a starveling from the gutter? That is unworthy. Poor fellow, you can trust him with anything but your purse. I've proved his loyalty."
She made another effort to break the spell of his persuasion.
"The Jameses are in prison," she said. "I couldn't desert them."
"I would not ask it. But don't you realise that it is your only chance to save them? When we've crossed the frontier we can get in touch with their English friends. It is impossible here, with every wire censored, because of the purge."
Anna looked around her wildly, as though seeking inspiration from the dingy walls. Her brain had ceased to function clearly and she realised that she had to make a decision with the sole aid of her intuition.
At the sound of a footstep in the passage, she challenged Otto.
"You wouldn't dare to say this to Conrad Stern's face."
"I am only waiting for the chance," he said.
The reed curtains slithered apart and Conrad Stern entered the dive.
As each man looked at the other, Anna had the sensation of waiting beside a wired mine. She was the more surprised, therefore, when Stern ignored Otto and spoke pointedly to her.
"Coffee is ordered—for two."
In his turn, Otto addressed Anna.
"Your friend knows that I would not drink with a spy."
In those words the current was switched on. But there was no explosion. With unshattered composure Stern spoke to Anna.
"Do you believe that?"
Although her brain was reeling, in that moment, she made her choice.
"No," she replied.
"Then we'll go somewhere else for our coffee. I do not care for the company here."
As she followed Stern from the dive, Anna heard Otto's voice, speaking in tones of conviction:
"Anna, you little fool, you are making the greatest mistake of your life."
When they were in the street, Stern spoke.
"Discharged on a 'Not Proven' verdict. Not pleasant."
"I don't need proof," Anna told him.
"Thank you, my dear. We must go to the station now."
They drove the short distance in silence. The incident had been so crudely personal that Anna felt shy of her companion, as though she had been privy to the accusation. She realised the strain upon her endurance only after she had toiled up the steps to the station hall.
"Where was the luggage left?" asked Stern.
"It was lying on the platform."
"No sign of it here. I must find out where it has been put. I'll come back for you."
She looked wearily around her but could see no vacant place on the benches. Then she noticed that the glass half of a door revealed the interior of a small office, where a girl yawned over a typewriter.
"I'll ask if I can wait in there," she told Stern.
As she anticipated, the typist made her welcome of the spare chair. Glad of company during a slack spell, she told Anna her personal history and then began to talk about her work.
"This morning was exciting. By chance, I was in the private office when a message came through about a cypher. It was not my business but I took the call."
Anna forgot her weariness.
"Who put it through?" she asked.
"Would you recognise his voice again?"
"Of course. I never forget a voice. Besides he spoke very clearly, as if he had a metal throat."
The buzzer sounded and the girl took up the speaking-tube. As she listened to the message, her eyes dilated with excitement.
"He's speaking now," she panted. "He's in the left luggage. He wants you."
"Me?" repeated Anna.
White to her lips, she forced herself to ask another question.
"You are sure it is the same voice?"
"I would swear to it in any court," replied the girl.
With a feeling of hopeless desperation, Anna took up the tube.
"Is that you, Anna?" asked Conrad Stern. "I've located the luggage. They are bringing down the suitcases. We shall have to leave the rest."
WITHOUT speaking, Anna laid down the tube.
"Is the comrade who gave the information a friend?" asked the typist.
"Yes," replied Anna. "He is a friend."
To her surprise, her voice sounded natural. With the same detachment she thanked the girl for her accommodation before she wished her "Good-evening."
As she stood outside in the hall she began to realise the reason for her calm. The shock had not shattered her because she had been expecting this revelation from the moment in the prison, when Gloria had hinted at betrayal by some one in their confidence. Since then, Ivan had demonstrated his ingenuity in setting a trap for Conrad Stern, while Otto had openly denounced him as a spy.
While she had then refused to admit the possibility, she was forced to accept this proof of identification as final. Yet she could not force a natural reaction, although she kept revolving the hideous phrases in her mind.
"Conrad is a spy. He has betrayed my friends—and he will betray me."
She knew that she ought to seize the moment to escape. Now that she was forewarned, there must be some counter-move, or some strategy she could employ to save herself. Yet she felt herself lacking in fundamental force and incapable of making a decision, as though some mental function had been mutilated.
Those around her seemed sunken in similar inertia. The naked bulbs glared down on the vast space, revealing its squalor and robbing it of its former shadowed grandeur. There was none of the electric atmosphere of excitement which vibrates through most large stations. This was not a starting-point for travel; it was a place for waiting. The forms which crowded the benches were so limp and inert that their bundles seemed actually of more importance—as though their owners were but personal labels.
"A bundle with a person attached," thought Anna inconsequently. "I must go. Anywhere. At once."
It was already too late, for Stern was coming towards her, followed by a man loaded with luggage.
To her horror she returned his smile of greeting. As she did so a wave of realisation swept over her. This man had undermined her resistance so completely that she had lost the power to believe, even while reason and instinct acknowledged the truth.
In spite of her self-control, her heart was leaden with foreboding. She knew that she was wilfully deceiving herself and that a terrible awakening was inevitable.
"Bored?" Stern glanced at her set white face. "Had you to endure the usual life-history?"
"No. The girl was quite interesting."
As she spoke Anna realised that she was on the verge of trying to force a revelation. She felt like a child who stands before a shrouded figure—wanting, yet fearing to pull aside the drapery. But, unlike the child, who is practically certain of seeing a familiar face, she hesitated because of what she dreaded to reveal.
"What did she tell you?"
The sharp note in Stern's voice put Anna on her guard. It reminded her that, at this stage, apparent ignorance must be her safeguard.
"Is that all the luggage?" she asked quickly.
"Merely a few travellers' samples. Mrs. James seems to have left out only one last thing. But probably she hadn't a straw."
"That's not too kind, when she's in prison."
"I'm beginning to think she deserves it. Now I'm going to let this unfortunate man unload, but I'll soon be back. The taxi can wait, but you must have a drink."
He moved towards the entrance, leaving Anna with another opportunity to escape. This time she wanted to avail herself of the chance, because his criticism of Gloria had snapped a strand of the net which enmeshed her. Yet she realised that panic flight was worse than useless without some definite purpose or plan.
"I must get some one to help me," she thought. "Lady Evans will only refuse again. If Otto's genuine, he might get me across the frontier. I must take a chance on him...But I'll have that drink. I may find out what he means to do if I can get him to talk."
As though he read her intention in her eyes, Stern startled her, on his return, by a warning.
"You are taking a great risk." He added with a laugh, "I shall probably make you drunk. You've had practically nothing to eat, and you've been beating from pillar to post."
"So have you," she reminded him. "It may be the other way round."
As though she were already intoxicated, she had only the foggiest idea of where she went or what the station buffet was like. She was conscious of handling a glass which felt unpleasantly sticky and fingered, and of the usual hot smoky fug. Occasionally some nightmare face floated before her, but she was mainly aware of the light striking directly on Stern's monocle, as though it were a magnified fiery eye.
"Are we drinking methylated?" she asked, as the raw spirit stung her throat.
"Nothing so pure or simple. What's the joke?"
His question made Anna realise that the laughing girl was herself.
"Something my mother told me," she explained. "When I was quite young I was always having unfortunate affairs. One day she found me reading German philosophy, and she said, 'You are a very ignorant child. You can read books—but you cannot read men.' It just struck me that my education is still incomplete."
"You mean Otto?"
"No." Reckless of consequence, Anna began to bluff. "I mean you. I counted on your promise, but you've let us down completely. What's to become of Cliff and Gloria? The Polar Beam sails at eight-thirty to-night."
"She does not," said Stern. "I met one of their stokers where we went for coffee, and he told me they haven't located the trouble. She will sail to-morrow morning at nine."
"But—how can they get her out with ice in the harbour? Besides, more will be forming to-night."
"Riley will do it. He is bound to find a way, because the owner will be on board. That is why I had to include Lady Evans in my party."
"She won't come."
"I shall hope to persuade her."
His face looked grim and hard as that of the metal rider in the square. Suddenly Anna grew afraid of him as she remembered his function of a spy. Although she shrank from him in spirit, she drew nearer, until her cheek was close to his.
"Do you mean you could fasten something on her, to make her take us on her ship?" she asked.
Lured by the brightness of her eyes and the suppressed excitement of her whisper, which linked them together in a pact of secrecy, he made his first admission.
"I might remind her of occasions when she had evaded regulations by discreet bribery in the right quarter. She had kept on good terms with the local authorities, but she is pig-headed and used to getting her own way over supplies. If I mentioned my intention of reporting any slight irregularity to a higher authority, I am sure she will see eye to eye with me over the Jameses."
"What a lot of things you seem to have found out. You heard about the engine trouble on the Polar Beam. It's an extraordinarily lucky coincidence that it happened when it did."
"Merely fortuitous. Besides, coincidences are commonplaces. When you consider the stupendous number of individuals who are subject to the same limited conditions of time, place and everyday event, it stands to reason that there must be a constant repetition of circumstance."
"That's a very lucid explanation after two glasses of this appalling stuff. Does it make sense? I've reached the stage when I know you are talking—and that's all...Shall we go?"
Anna's knees felt weak when she began to walk, but her shakiness was not the result of liquor. In spite of her pretence at stupidity, she believed that she had become possessed of knowledge concerning their vulnerable points.
According to Otto, Stern's objective was the rich Lady Evans, in which case, his motive must be monetary gain. She would be compelled to assist the Jameses and then denounced to the authorities for compounding a felony. The penalty would be probably a heavy fine—on which Stern would claim a stiff commission—while the unfortunate Jameses would be re-imprisoned.
Yet, although it was an operation calculated to improve the status of a spy, she felt sure that Stern was reluctant to involve her in the plot. From the first she knew that he had been drawn to her—as she to him—by the inscrutable law of attraction. In proof he had advised her to leave the country after Otto's arrest, while his concern seemed genuine at each check to her return.
"Even if he means to save me, it amounts to nothing," she reasoned. "Whatever happens, I must stand by Cliff and Gloria, because they were ready to see me through. When he struck at them, he struck at me too."
To her mind the worst feature was that she could not hate him, although she felt degraded by his feeling for her. It seemed to hint at something rotten in herself that signalled to another corrupt spirit. She knew that she was descending to the weakest compromise when she withheld her ultimate judgment.
"I shall not believe he betrayed my friends until I hear it from him," she decided.
The supposition was sufficiently wild to be wholly ridiculous, especially as she recognised the necessity to act on her suspicions. Her brain was active as she walked down the station steps to where the taxi was waiting.
It gave her a pang to see the Jameses' suitcases, which were so many decoys to snare Lady Evans into the belief of a genuine attempt at escape. At that moment it seemed that the Jameses were in such a perilous position that it was impossible to help them, either immediately or ultimately. Even if the Commandant awoke sufficiently sober to sign their order of release, they would be rearrested directly they boarded the Polar Beam.
The only faint hope was to follow Otto's advice and get in touch with English authorities outside the country. Meanwhile she must try to warn Lady Evans of her danger.
"If she left by car at once," thought Anna, "she could cross the frontier to-night and try to help us from the other side. I would undertake to keep Conrad with me, so that he won't know she has gone until it is too late."
Even as she planned, she felt sick with apprehension. She had to convince a woman who was without sympathy or imagination. If her reaction was in accordance with precedent, Anna would be shouted down and ordered to leave the office, while Stern would be challenged to deny the story.
If she did that, their last hope would be destroyed.
She was silent during the short drive to the Hotel Dom. Directly they reached the entrance she jumped from the taxi, while Stern was giving directions about the luggage. Careless of notice, she rushed through the lounge and dashed into the office.
It was not only empty, but bare as a field after the visitation of a swarm of locusts. The reason was made apparent when Ivan came out of the inner room, a conciliatory grin on his peaked face.
"My gracious ladyship left me to tidy up," he explained. "She gave me permission to take a few trifles, such as would be useful to a struggling student."
"Where is she?" asked Anna.
"Upstairs with the poor motherless baby," anticipated Ivan. "I have compassion for the poor orphan, for I, too, was left an orphan. Soon she will be roaming the streets and robbing the citizens."
"Don't talk nonsense. Besides, she is going back to England."
"If her parents are lucky."
Ivan's sly smile hinted at private knowledge, but Anna had no time to waste on him. Again she rushed through the lounge and up the stairs to Lady Evans' bedroom, where she surprised Marie in the act of parading in Lady Evans's pyjamas.
At once the girl burst into noisy sobs, compelling Anna to shout against her rising hysterics.
"Where is Lady Evans?"
Marie could only point to the door with a fresh flood of tears.
"Don't go to her," she implored. "When she knows, she will beat me."
"I won't tell her anything," promised Anna, as she managed to break free from Marie's frantic clutch.
It was the hall-porter who finally crushed her hope.
"She is gone out just before you came in," he reported. "I cannot tell you when she will come back."
AT that point it seemed to Anna chiefly important to locate Lady Evans. If her prejudices were overcome, she could render valuable assistance; and even if this were not possible, she had to be warned of her own peril.
At the same time her problematical help was such a doubtful proposition that Anna could not waste the evening in search of her. She had no knowledge of the most likely place to find her. While it seemed in keeping with her character that she had gone over to the Polar Beam—for first-hand information and target practice—there was also a chance that she had spent her last evening more peacefully in saying good-bye to friends.
Since Ivan was the only person who could supply the names and addresses of her chief Russian supporters, Anna crossed the lounge again to find him. As she did so she realised that the fictitious vigour lent her by her drink at the buffet had been withdrawn; the mulish kick had gone out of the liquor and she was left with the bruise.
She was so tired that she could hardly drag her feet over the carpet—so mentally drained that she felt incapable of making any further effort. For the first time she thought of Ivan with any degree of gratitude.
"He will know their telephone numbers and ring them up for me. If he traces her, I can speak to her and tell her to come back."
Encouraged by the prospect of a deputy, she opened the office door—only to find that Ivan was gone. By this time, however, the sense of frustration was growing so familiar that she was scarcely disappointed as she forecast her movements.
"Now I must go to the porter and ask for Ivan. He will say 'He is just now gone out. I cannot say when he will return.'...Everything's bloody."
The consciously cultivated adjective of the Komsomol period cropped up naturally to sum up the situation. Feeling that if she sat down she would never get up again, she toiled in search of the porter—when their short interview was conducted according to schedule.
There was no further news of Ivan—or any one else she knew—and no bulletins likely to be issued.
At the conclusion of the porter's statement, Anna flopped down on the nearest chair and stared dully down a pillared vista of dusty palms and cracked statues.
"I came to Russia for experience," she thought, "and the joke is, I can feel nothing. Things are happening to my friends and me—and more will happen. But I'm past caring."
It was restful to drift on a current of fatalism, but even this solace was denied her. The sight of Conrad Stern, as he came down the stairs, shook her out of her lethargy. She noticed for the first time that he walked noiselessly on rubber soles.
"I've had the luggage put in Lady Evans's room, as it is largest," he said.
As he spoke, he offered her one of the cigarettes whose price he did not know.
"I prefer my own," she said hastily.
He raised his brows when she produced a limp and battered packet.
"I have to go out," he said. "I want you to promise not to leave the hotel in my absence. Otto's release can mean only one thing. He has squealed."
"Do you mean I am in danger?" she asked.
"No. I am sure you are safe as long as you are not involved with others. Steer clear of every one. Otto might try to get in touch with you. If he does, it will be for the sake of what money you possess."
"Then that proves he has not squealed. I understand spies are well paid. Aren't they?"
Stern took no notice of the question.
"He may propose some wild-cat scheme to induce you to part with all you have. If he does, turn it down at once. Don't go anywhere with him by car, or you will be sure to find yourself stranded and penniless...And remember, I cannot go chasing you, for I am bound to be at the prison early to-morrow."
He spoke with such conviction that Anna was aghast at the depth of his duplicity.
"Are you going out on another mysterious mission?" she asked.
He looked at her intently before he spoke.
"You don't trust me?"
She answered his question by another.
"Isn't it rather perplexing? Otto warns me against you and you warn me against Otto. I feel like the man in the riddle of 'The lady—or the tiger?' Which door?"
"You will know when you feel the tiger's claws—and heaven help you then. I want to save you from your own impulses...If you had trusted me entirely I could have told you something which might have cleared the air. Now I cannot trust you with any confidence...But, for your own sake, stay in to-night."
Every word he said made Anna realise that she had missed her chance when she rejected Otto's help. After Stern had gone, she sat with closed eyes, while she planned an immediate flight. She did not like the idea of running away without a word of explanation to Lady Evans, but it was too risky to leave a note.
At that moment, it seemed to her that the safety of the party depended on her crossing the frontier. The worst part was her reluctance to use Otto. She had proved him weak and unreliable, so she could have no real confidence in him. It was only the desperate need of the situation that made her take the chance. Moreover, she had learned by experience not to part with any money except for services rendered.
First, she had to find Otto, which meant another visit to the underground dive. It was the only place where she was likely to learn of his movements, while, if her luck were in, he might be there still. The fact that Stern had asked her not to go out seemed to rule out the possibility that Otto might come to the hotel. Now that her suspicion was aroused, she believed that he had mentioned the likelihood merely to keep her from going to find Otto.
Forcing herself to her feet, she passed through the revolving doors—while the porter watched her go.
"He will say, 'She is gone out, but I do not know when she will come back.'"
The thought made her shiver even more than the cold, for she shrank definitely from the idea of revisiting the dive. Yet, according to official statement—there was no vice in Russia, while Stern was palpably joking about the dubious character of the place.
At the same time, she had recognised the tainted flavour of its atmosphere. It was a spot for stealthy appointment—for treachery and intrigue. She was sure that freedom had been snared and lives lied away within its dingy walls.
Eyes watched her leave the hotel—silent feet kept pace with her on the other side of the street. Too strung-up for any imaginative fears, she hurried along—sometimes breaking into a run.
Whenever she did so, a shadow seemed to race past under any occasional lamp, like a wisp of tattered darkness swept before a wind. Just before the dive was reached, it swooped ahead, sank down into the area and disappeared through a crack of the door.
It had won the race.
Anna saw nothing—heard nothing. She felt half choked from exertion and nervousness as she groped down the perilous steps and entered the first room. It was empty—although she received the impression that, since she had left it, the underground treacherous current had been seeping through it—leaving a sediment from dubious personalities. The smoke haze was denser—the individual odours more compounded—the fug more mephitic.
She was gazing around her—half in relief, half in disappointment—when a woman pushed an entrance through the reed curtain. She was young and coarsely attractive, so that Anna was not surprised when she appeared to know Otto's business.
"Anna Stephanovitch?" she asked. "Do you want to see Otto?"
"Yes," replied Anna. "Is he here?"
"He is expecting you. He asks you to wait for him. But this room is public and you must be private. Please to come."
Anna followed the girl down a narrow passage and into the private room. It differed little from the other, except that its plaster walls were mottled in a manner which reminded her of the favourite currant-biscuits of her schoolgirl days—"squashed flies."
As she suspected that there was an entomological basis for the comparison, she was careful to keep in the middle of the room.
"I am 'Elsa,'" said the girl. "I will see that you are not disturbed."
"Thank you. I will remember you later, Elsa."
The girl shut the door behind her and Anna resigned herself to another period of waiting. She was slightly disconcerted by the fact that Otto had arranged for her reception. It showed that he was more certain of her than she had given him any reason to expect.
The finality of the proceedings reminded her that, within a few minutes, she would be committed to an alliance in which she had not perfect confidence. Her heart beat quicker whenever she heard a footstep in the distance. On the whole, however, the place was quiet, with scarcely a sound of voices, and no burst of wireless, music or laughter.
As the minutes passed and no one came down the passage, she began to wonder whether the attractive lady had not forgotten her in more congenial society. Appalled by the waste of time, she crossed the room and turned the handle—to find the door was locked on the outside.
After the first shock, she felt no panic, for her brain supplied the reason for her imprisonment. Although this was a stock situation for a drama of the underworld, she felt positive that she was in no personal peril. She was merely put into storage, for a stated period, by Conrad Stern.
She remembered that since he had used this place as a base, he would be on such terms with the inmates that he could issue his instructions. He wanted to keep her and Otto apart, so he had arranged to have her kept under observation at the hotel and imprisoned directly she reached the dive. When all risk of her interference with his plans was over, she would be released.
In the circumstances, it was useless to shout or to hammer on the door. No one would pay any attention to her. Since the windows were also shuttered, she had to accept the situation—and wait.
She waited...Sitting in the least dubious chair, she tried to utilise her confinement as a suspension of energy. But the knowledge that the world outside the room had not stood still, robbed her rest of any benefit. Even then, Lady Evans, who was the key factor in her scheme, might be exploited. It was of utmost importance to be first to present any facts, because afterwards, it would be almost impossible to wrench her mind from a preconceived opinion.
Anna waited...Actually it was more than an hour later, when the sound of a key turning in the lock made her spring towards the door. As it opened, she almost fell into Ivan's arms.
He stepped back quickly to let her pass, as though to demonstrate that he had no designs on her liberty.
"I know nothing," he gabbled, before she could speak. "Elsa told me this door was locked. That is all I know."
Anna tried to intercept his shifting eyes in vain, before she took a short cut to the truth.
"I want to hear everything, Ivan," she said, showing him a note.
"I will tell all," he promised. "First I must explain that my job is now come to an end and I am afraid to meet my ladyship again, because I think I misunderstood her when she told me to leave the office tidy...So I was glad to get the job of spying on you."
For a second, it seemed to Anna that the room grew darker.
"To spy on me?" she repeated.
"Why not? I am not proud. You see, Otto sent you a note by me, which I opened and read. He told you to meet him here, to talk business, if you changed your mind. But he said he would not wait after such-and-such a time...Being honest, I showed the note to my new employer and he gave me my orders. When you went out, I ran on ahead to tell Elsa to lock you up safe, until Otto was gone."
"Where is he now?"
"Ah, that no one knows. He went out with Elsa and they are going to be very gay. He has money and she likes a good time. And he likes Elsa. There are many places here where an English miss would not care to go. Even if you found them, Elsa would want to fight—and I do not think Otto would leave her for you."
Anna listened with a hopeless recognition of defeat.
"You've made it quite clear, Ivan," she said. "I do not propose to humiliate myself. Here's your money. And you can tell Conrad Stern from me, that you've earned his money too."
"Seychas," promised Ivan amiably. "I will tell him. But not yet, because he is with my gracious ladyship."
Before he had finished speaking, Anna clutched his arm.
"Where are they?" she asked breathlessly.
"At the hotel. In the office. I left the desk and the chairs."
Pushing him aside, Anna began to run. She rushed through the café—where no one paid any attention to her—up the area steps and along the twisting streets. The lamps were extinguished for the night, but her eyes soon grew accustomed to the darkness. Guided by the white glimmer of the margins of trodden snow, she kept to the pavements and reached the hotel.
The hall-porter—whose policy seemed opposed to witnessing any return—turned his back towards her as she dashed across the lounge and burst into the office.
Lady Evans, who was still in her outdoor clothes, sat at her desk, frowning at Conrad Stern as he stood before her. Ignorant of what had already passed between them, Anna interrupted breathlessly.
"Don't listen to him, Lady Evans. He has betrayed the others—and he will betray you too."
"Can you prove this?" asked Stern directly, while Lady Evans stared at the girl in astonishment.
"Yes," she replied. "The telephone-clerk at the station recognised your voice, this evening."
The pause that followed was broken by Lady Evans.
"Is this true?" she asked Stern. "Did you give the information about the cypher?"
As she heard the word, something withered within Anna. Until that moment, she had not really believed that it could be true. Lady Evans, too, gave a gasping splutter, as though she had just swallowed a mouthful of salt water.
"Well?" she inquired sharply. "You can't leave it like that. Go on."
"I was arrested," said Stern tonelessly, "at a time when it was of utmost importance to be free to attend to my own business. That's all."
"My firm sent me out to meet one of their travellers. I could not locate him. As it appeared obvious that he was dead, it was my job to get in touch with the traveller next in rotation. He proved elusive, but I was on his track when I was arrested."
Lady Evans looked intently at Stern while he was speaking. Even in her numbed condition, Anna was struck by the intelligence of her eyes. Hers was essentially the face of a shrew and betrayed a domineering, bad-tempered nature; yet there was also evidence that her brain was not a mere receptacle for academic storage, but a trained instrument.
"You've not made out a very good case for yourself," she said. "No excuses—or further explanations?"
"None," replied Stern.
"Then, let me see if I have got it clear...You were a link in a chain of vital communication. Since one link was missing, if you could not join up with the next, the whole chain would be broken and valueless. Is that right?"
A faint line of sweat broke out on Stern's lip.
"It is a fanciful way to describe a business transaction," he remarked.
"A woman's way. Now, I am inclined to believe you. What is more, I have nearly made up my mind to offer you and your friends a passage back to England, on the Polar Beam."
As she listened, it seemed to Anna that the whole world must be mad. Too frozen to protest, she stood in mute despair.
"But before I believe you definitely," went on Lady Evans, "you must answer a question truthfully...Are you in love with this girl?"
She pointed to Anna.
Stern looked at her, but before the horror in her eyes, his lids drooped. For the first time, she saw him shamed and at a loss.
"Do you love her?" insisted Lady Evans.
The blood rushed to Anna's face. After his confession of treachery, a declaration of love seemed the ultimate insult.
"I hate you," she cried. "I—I—"
"Shut up, you little fool." Lady Evans's voice was sharp. "Haven't you the wit to understand that no man would risk the woman he loves except for something bigger...This lover of yours is serving his country. The name of his firm is 'England.'"
STERN watched Anna closely as Lady Evans spoke. She looked at him and smiled, while the anguish died from her eyes. He drew a deep breath at the sight, as though an intolerable strain were eased.
"Well?" Lady Evans's voice expressed the annoyance of one who has exploded a damp squib. "What have you got to say?"
"Nothing," he replied. "I have given you my explanation. I cannot add to it."
"Heavens, man, you might credit me with elementary intelligence. You are not asked to reveal State secrets."
"I know none. My official importance is about equal to a sealed envelope without address or stamp."
"But liable to get lost in the post. Didn't you say one man was dead? Don't play yourself too low. There's a girl listening and she might take you at your own valuation."
Anna spoke for the first time.
"Is it indiscreet to ask you how you knew about the cypher?"
"No, I can tell you that." Conrad seemed eager to break his enforced silence. "I had proof that Madame Lötsch was not on the level. In my new profession, I had the freedom of unauthorised places. I went into her bedroom after her death, when I noticed strands of blue and red cotton lying on her work-table. The indication was that she had been embroidering the doll's dress. I only remarked the fact when I discovered, in a drawer, a roll of elaborate Russian flouncing which she could have used. After that, I found a doll's complete outfit—and an expensive one—lying on a shelf in her wardrobe."
"Obvious," broke in Lady Evans. "Of course, she had undressed the doll and made it a new dress. Any one would be suspicious. Go on."
"Almost directly afterwards, I was re-arrested. I decided to gamble on the possibilities of a cypher in the embroidery of the dress. The natural inference was that it concerned personal property and would be innocuous to any one outside her family, who might chance to be connected with it. She was dead—and the Jameses were protected by their nationality. I thought that they would be in no danger, but merely inconvenienced. I was then in touch with my—my man and I could not risk loss of liberty at this vital stage. So I telephoned this piece of information to the station authorities, to prove the genuine nature of my espionage."
He looked at the women searchingly, as though to challenge their judgment.
Lady Evans approved without hesitation
"A nice bit of stalling," she said. "When were you arrested first?"
"At the same time as Otto and in connection with his miserable newspaper. I should never have gone to the place, but I was trying to contact my missing man...I accepted the usual terms for freedom and was allowed to hop about at the end of a string. I could come and go on their official business."
Womanlike, Anna wondered whether he regretted the indiscretion. He might have avoided the trap, at the price of never meeting her. She was faced with the eternal enigma of which a man held higher—his mission or his love.
Even had she the opportunity, she had not the courage to ask him that question. But Lady Evans was restrained by no delicacy in probing his past.
"When you were a spy, did you actually incriminate any one?"
"Yes." Stern's tone defied her opinion. "I reported two cases of flagrant disloyalty to the Soviet. I considered my action justified as they were outrages to any government. Afterwards, they grew impatient of getting no further results, so I was re-arrested. It goes without saying that I could not incriminate innocent citizens."
"No, only other English people," snapped Lady Evans. "That's the true British spirit. Sacrifice your own country and save the alien."
The shadow returned to Stern's face.
"I had no suspicion the cypher was loaded," he said. "I counted on getting them out again directly I'd seen Markovitch. But they will be free to-morrow. We must make our arrangements."
"They are already made," announced Lady Evans calmly. "The Polar Beam sails at nine. If she doesn't, she's here for the winter. At eight-thirty, I board her, with the baby and Miss Brown. You must collect the Jameses and join us. I warn you, we shall not wait for you."
"But, Lady Evans," cried Anna, "surely you are not going back by sea?"
"I certainly am. I don't intend to risk the frontier, once the Commandant hears that his birds have flown. He thinks their wings are clipped. I intend to run no personal risk. There is none unless I'm caught in the act of helping prisoners to escape. We don't want Ivan & Co. nosing around."
"I will attend to that part at once," promised Stern. "I have useful friends at a disreputable house which I use for appointments...Anna has seen me there...One of the ladies is already taking care of Otto. I'll arrange for similar attentions for Ivan. They won't be at the dock, either to-night or to-morrow morning."
"Then go at once. But first of all, find Riley and send him here. That reminds me. Have I to thank you for that convenient engine trouble?"
"I can only assure you that it will be repaired by to-morrow morning."
Stern hurried from the office before Lady Evans could assemble her vocabulary. Her silence and grim expression told Anna that she was in a temper, so that the girl wondered whether she were regretting her decision.
"I hope your animals won't be affected," she said nervously.
"Do you think I'd risk them?" demanded Lady Evans. "There are humanitarians even in this hole and they've taken control of the centre. The financial backing comes from my end. But I shall not come back. My agent must report future progress. My life is valuable."
She glared at Anna and shouted, "Don't waste time. Go upstairs and go through the luggage. Repack only the bare necessities for every one. Make an intelligent selection. I shall judge Oxford on the result. We can't take more than a small suitcase apiece, because we must slip out quickly without attracting the staff. Riley will call for us in a taxi."
Anna moved towards the door, but lingered there in hesitation. While she felt compelled to express her admiration, she could only blurt out a schoolgirl expression.
"You are a real sport."
"I hate the word," snarled Lady Evans. "Besides, I'm looking forward to a new experience. I shall be able to study working conditions at first hand. Some one's bound to be blistered over this trip."
Captain Riley was the first victim of her tongue. He arrived at the hotel soon after Anna went upstairs to repack. It proved a tiresome job and she feared that the result did not justify the university training which was on trial.
Whenever she had occasion to go down to the lounge, she could hear the sound of Lady Evans's voice scolding the captain through the office walls. When at last he was released, his face was scored with worry—like a map of a watershed—and every line was a tributary of the river Evans.
He met Stern in the lobby and unloaded his grievance.
"If she's coming along with us, there's going to be a second Mutiny of the Bounty...I've the best wife in Southampton. She knows it and she lets me know it. But for the first time, I'll be glad to get home."
"She's got her good points," remarked Stern.
"Yes. She doesn't smarm. She's taken the skin off both my ears."
Stern went into the office, to find Anna also there.
"I can promise definitely that there will be no scouts to-morrow," he said. "Now the work is done, what about toasting our venture? Owing to my peculiar status, the drinks will be on the house."
"I'll order," said Lady Evans firmly. "That's a poor joke."
When their glasses were emptied, Anna announced her decision.
"I'm not going on board with you to-morrow, Lady Evans. I'm going to the prison with Conrad. It's all settled—and I don't change my mind. He knows too that I'm staying behind, if—if you have to sail without Gloria and Clifford."
Lady Evans looked at her determined face and sniffed.
"That's your own affair. Whatever happens to the rest of you, I mean to go home."
"I hope to accompany you," said Stern. "There's a place in London I want to see. I've been to Tibet—but I've never been to Hammersmith Broadway."
"Then why are you always talking about it?" asked Anna.
"Because I like the name. It suggests the thunders of Thor."
Lady Evans interrupted them with a peremptory order.
"Time for bed. Lie down, even if you don't undress."
Anna looked at Conrad.
"No one can possibly sleep," she said. "We will stay up together."
"You won't," Lady Evans told her. "You've got to rest—and alone. I'll have no Russian tricks here. Off with you."
Disobeying the command, Anna drew Stern aside.
"You said you love me," she reminded him.
"All that must be forgotten until we are sure of to-morrow," he said.
"That's what I meant. This may be our last night together. Our fate depends on a drunken man."
"He's sleeping it off now. Remember what little Braun said. The night will soon pass."
"Bed," shouted Lady Evans.
They all separated at the first landing. Lady Evans stamped into her bedroom. She dismissed Marie and boiled milk for the baby, who was awake and waiting to be expertly organised.
After she had given the young critic a satisfactory demonstration, she crossed to the chest and took up two photographs—one of her husband and the other of her favourite cocker-spaniel.
She kissed the dog. Then she struck her head a sharp blow.
"You fool. The fellow's a self-confessed spy...Pray you'll see them again."
She lay awake for the rest of the night, planning every detail of the voyage and thinking of her home. Towards dawn, she decided to sack a housemaid of whom she had received a bad report. After that, she felt much better.
Anna kept vigil too as she sat at her window, looking up at the blaze of frosty stars which studded the sky like a metallic mosaic. She told herself that, while she watched, a slow procession of minutes was spanning the gulf between them and their destiny. To-morrow? Where would she be? Hearing the thud of the sea against the side of a ship? Still waiting for news? Or even—lying dead in some cellar—if the purge were unduly accelerated.
The stars wheeled and multiplied to a swarm as her lids drooped. Then they went out altogether as, for a minute, she dreamed.
She thought she was back in a dark, old-fashioned shop, where a young cashier sat in a mahogany cage. Anna looked at her as though she were a stranger. To-day she could have passed that girl in the street, almost without touching a chord of memory.
She was tall for her age with rounded childish cheeks and bobbed hair cut in a thick fringe. Even more striking was the unfamiliarity of the vividly-rouged face—brightly hued as a Shirley poppy. Anna remembered that the other shopgirls had made up their complexions and that she had imitated them to achieve standardisation.
The eyes of the schoolgirl smouldered with the rebellious anger at class inequality which had goaded her to forsake family comfort and to sleep under the stars. That abortive job was the beginning of a strange journey...Where was it to lead her?
The stars came back to the sky as Anna started awake. Looking up at them, she believed she knew now the answer to the schoolgirl's question. Her futile social experiments—her groping and her blundering in the darkness—were all to bring her here, where she had learned the true meaning of comradeship; not with picturesque aliens or ragged outcasts, hallowed by destitution, but with a prosperous pair of compatriots, who typified the system she hated and despised.
The quest had given her something more—a starved love, without moments or memories, which might fulfil itself only in the hour of death.
There was exultation in the knowledge that they might die together; but even as she thought of Conrad, life surged up within her in passionate protest.
"No. It cannot end like this."
In that moment, she thought of the shop. Once again, a blurred figure, with misted features, spoke to a dim schoolgirl in the masquerade of an adult.
"All is part of a Scheme. You ask 'Why?' But there is also the 'Because.' It may be that you came here to meet some one who will control your destiny."
The fatalism implanted within Anna by her Russian stepfather, made her grasp at the hope of a logical solution. What would happen to-morrow, had already taken place in the past. Some circumstance or chance contact connected with the shop, was a pebble flung ahead into the future—and its outermost circle would touch her in her hour of need.
"I shall meet some one," she prophesied.
She did not know that the meeting had already taken place, without recognition or consequence, while of the old shop itself nothing remained. It had slipped back into the past, peopled with shadows—one shade, a shop-walker without name or nationality—another, an anonymous schoolgirl.
HALF an hour before the Polar Beam was due to sail, Anna waited with Stern in the outer office of Markovitch's suite. Both were strung to a degree of tension when they could hardly endure the brief interval before the door opened and Braun entered.
His hair hung in limp spikes—his tunic was disarranged. He looked as though he had gone without sleep and was exhausted by exertion; but he beamed with triumph as he gave them his news.
"He is now awake."
For a few seconds, Anna could not see because of the mist before her eyes. The mental relief was so overwhelming that she felt almost on the point of physical collapse.
"Has he signed?" asked Stern sharply.
"Not yet," replied Braun. "Seychas...You understand, it has been almost a miracle to get him to wake. The struggle has been terrific. Now, we have to keep him awake. I promise you that his brain will be clear within an hour."
"An hour," cried Anna despairingly. "We haven't half that time."
"Where is he?" rapped out Stern.
Braun nodded towards the inner office.
"I'll make him sign."
In the midst of her own suspense, Anna was struck by the released fury of Stern's voice. It was that of one who had almost reached the limit of his endurance. As he looked at her, she knew instinctively that he was remembering why she was in that room.
"We are together," she reminded him.
He did not hear her. She smiled at him, but he did not see her. Every cell of will-power—every fibre of muscle was being flogged to the performance of what might be proved impossible.
As they burst into the inner room, Anna recoiled from the sight of Markovitch, who lay slumped in a chair. All traces of the genial and immaculate man-of-the-world had gone. His face was the hue of putty, and he blew through swollen lips, like a spouting whale. His tunic was opened and a lump of melting ice was tied inside the cloth which bound his head.
"Markovitch," shouted Stern.
The name reached him, for he suddenly heaved himself out of his chair and began to blunder towards the couch.
"Stop him," yelled Braun. "If he goes to sleep again, all is lost."
Anna held her breath as she watched the struggle. It reminded her of hounds baiting a bear. Stern held on grimly to the huge form which plunged and fought, while little Braun yelled with excitement.
"He's enjoying it," she thought angrily.
Between them, the men gradually pushed and pulled Markovitch back to his chair, where he sat, staring through half-closed lids, which revealed no gleam of intelligence.
"Where is the Authority?" asked Stern.
Braun slid an official paper across the table.
"All in order?"
"Perfectly. It only lacks the signature."
"We'll get that." Stern thrust a fountain-pen between the limp fingers and spoke sternly. "Write your name here."
Markovitch took no notice of the command. He collapsed in his chair and continued to blow heavily.
The scene was repeated until Anna's brain felt dinted through sheer repetition of the phrases.
"Is there any hope?" she whispered to Braun.
"Naturally," he replied. "Every minute he is becoming more sober. It is only a question of time before he is really awake."
Time. At the reminder, she looked at her watch. The precious minutes of grace were slipping away. As though to emphasise that fatal shrinkage, the ship's siren hooted in warning. It was a Great Voice, with impatience in its note, telling those on shore to hurry.
Through the window, not far away, she could see the two brick-red funnels of the Polar Beam. From that distance, the ship appeared to be frozen into the ice, although an occasional gleam of ale-coloured water showed where the breaker had been at work.
Braun followed her gaze as though he guessed their plan for departure.
"See, madam," he said, "the funnels of the last steamer. It is foolish to delay. The captain must be mad. Soon the port will be closed until the spring."
Then his face changed to illustrate his sense of drama.
"Ah," he said. "The frost is ever Russia's ally and will close in on her enemies until they are rats caught in an icy trap."
"He's heard something," thought Anna. "Really he's against us. I don't believe he wants us to escape."
As she strained her eyes, she caught a flicker of white moving against a dark form on the ship. Lady Evans was waving her handkerchief as though to force an answering signal.
Unable to bear the sight, she turned back to the room. It seemed to her that fresh lines were graven in Stern's face from the tensity of his purpose. He was draining himself of power—striving to project the galvanic force of his personality into the sodden Commandant. His voice hammered on remorselessly, until Anna fancied that the air vibrated with the snarl of Russian gutturals.
At last, he appeared to strike a spark. Markovitch's face twitched suddenly and he nodded as though he understood.
"Seychas," he muttered thickly, in token that he was a man of honour who would meet his liabilities in due course. In—due—course. He was not to be hurried while he could still steep himself in a golden alcoholic haze.
The spark died out—and he began to drift away from them again.
Stern raised his head and spoke to Anna.
"What's the time?"
Unable to command her voice, she raised her wrist to the level of his eyes.
"My God," he groaned. "Anna, you've got to go now."
"Not without you."
"I'm staying here—with them."
"Of course. We can't desert them. So I am staying too."
"No, you're going on board, if I have to drag you there."
As he gripped her arm, she laughed up at him.
"You can do that. But you can't keep me on the ship. I shall jump over the side. I swear it. I will not live without you."
He knew that she would carry out her threat of suicide. His fingers relaxed and his face softened in a smile.
"I love you," he said. "And once again, it's too late."
As she listened, Anna had one moment of perfect happiness, when her spirit soared in release. Far below, in the void—spinning like a humming-top—was the little world, dusted with myriad swarms of infinitesimal humanity.
"I love you," she said.
She dropped down to earth again at the bellow of the ship's siren.
"Is she sailing?" asked Stern hoarsely.
Anna crossed to the window. She could see no flutter of white handkerchief—no sentinel figure. Apparently Lady Evans had despaired of any answering signal.
"Still there," she said.
The hooting ceased, so that they were aware of another sound—the steady distant snore of an airplane. While they listened, the machine cut across the section of sky framed by the window.
Their eyes met and Stern nodded.
"Fleischer. The hell of it is, Markovitch will be sober soon. Soon—but not soon enough for us."
As he spoke, Braun poured out a cup of black coffee and carried it over to the table.
"Perhaps he will drink this now," he suggested. "He resisted it before and most of it was spilt. But he is becoming more sensible."
His tone was confident, for experience enabled him to size up his superior's condition correctly. Unfortunately, however, returning sobriety entailed a fresh complication. As Markovitch's mind began to stir, making him dimly aware of his surroundings, his instinct warned him to resent interference.
He had enjoyed a glorious booze and he did not want to be jolted prematurely back to responsibility. Honeyed sleep was still dripping through his brain, mellowing and clogging it to a state of benevolent torpor. He smiled stupidly at the confusing faces round him, which kept multiplying like a swarm of flies.
"Seychas," he promised. "Seychas."
Braun made a dramatic gesture of defeat.
"Hopeless," he declared. "He—"
He broke off as the door was pushed open violently and Lady Evans burst in, looking like an infuriated bear in her fur coat. Her face was flushed purple-red, and her voice was breathless.
"What the devil's holding you?" she panted.
Before any one could speak, her eyes supplied the explanation. Immediately she took charge of the situation.
"Prairie-oyster," she commanded.
"There's only coffee," explained Stern.
"Then it will have to do...Let me." Picking up the cup, she gripped Markovitch's chin.
"Drink this," she rasped. "At once."
To Anna's incredulous joy, he obeyed meekly, while the men watched her with specialised admiration. They realised that this was the force which had pulled Sir Charles Evans out of the hangover from many a city banquet, so that he might attend his appointed board meeting.
Lady Evans went on speaking in her recently acquired Russian, using key words without deference to grammar, but making herself understood.
"How soon can you release the prisoners?" she demanded.
She asked the question partly by mouth and partly with a roll of notes, as she slammed down the empty cup.
Braun's eyes glittered.
"Immediately," he said. "The guard is waiting to unlock the cells at sight of the Order of Release."
"Then we can just make it," she snapped.
Sweeping the cup on to the floor, she produced a passport and opened it at the portraits of Clifford and Gloria James.
"Look," she commanded.
As recognition dawned in Markovitch's eyes, she clapped his hand on the document.
"Write your name there," she ordered.
Instantly his fingers flexed firmly round the fountain-pen.
There followed a moment of breathless hope, while they strained their eyes for the first stroke upon the paper. But no ink issued from the pen. There was only an inert hand blocking the document, like a broken-down bit of machinery.
The driving-power had ceased to operate. Lady Evans had brought the Commandant's fingers to the pen and the requisite knowledge to his brain; but she could not span them with the connecting link.
She was the first to acknowledge defeat, as she glanced at her watch.
"Can you guide his hand?" she asked Braun. "I will pay any price for his signature."
His eyes glistened with avarice, but he shook his head.
"No one could counterfeit that signature. It is like some extraordinary hieroglyphic rather than a name."
"Then—we must go."
A long sustained blast sounded from the port. It was the voice of the umpire—counting them out. They were beaten by time.
Anna's shoulders were bowed, and her head drooped, as though she saluted her fate. In that dark moment, the thread of her mind snapped and her thoughts went spraying off in different directions.
A line of stunted trees, doing physical jerks in the wind...A damned and beautiful blonde Fury striding across the road...A cellar—a pistol shot—and then? Perhaps a little world, far below, spinning out of sight..."I love you."...A red trolley-bus lurching through the traffic of Hammersmith. "I have travelled far from the Broadway."...A shabby old-fashioned shop, mottled with spring sunshine—and a blurred black figure pacing the uneven boards.
"In your hour of peril, the shop will speak."
The words rang as clearly as though some one were shouting in her ear. She looked around her wildly, as though she expected some miraculous intervention from the past.
But nothing happened. She saw Conrad's face set in the rigour of despair and—through the windows—the funnels of the Polar Beam. It was defeat within an ace of victory. The Commandant who was their life-buoy, was slowly drifting past them, almost within reach of their finger-tips.
Then Conrad Stern spoke gently.
She yielded to his touch upon her arm. But just before she turned to go, she spoke to the Commandant in a last hopeless appeal.
At the English word, Markovitch suddenly started, like a galley-slave galvanised by the crack of the whip. Once again he was the political exile pacing the floor of a dark, foreign shop, sodden with alcoholic dreams of future power, yet trained to respond to the Word of Power—"Sign."
His fingers tightened spasmodically on the pen and twitched in a reflex movement. Automatically, as though he were back in the past, he scrawled his signature upon the Order of Release.
The Shop had spoken.
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